The Director for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, the Revd Canon Dr Stephen Spencer, reviews The Lambeth Conference: Theology, History, Polity and Purpose, edited by Paul Avis and Benjamin M Guyer.
Preparations for the next Lambeth Conference in 2020 are moving forward with gathering pace. The venue is booked (University of Kent’s campus at Canterbury), invitations will be sent out shortly, the outline structure of the week is in place, a group of scholars from across the globe are about to begin work on the Bible studies and many bishops have already said they will be attending.
But what is the Lambeth Conference and where does it come from? A number of books will be published to help answer these questions and at the head of the pack is The Lambeth Conference: Theology, History, Polity and Purpose – a substantial and fascinating volume on the history and theology of the Lambeth Conference, which begins with the first conference in 1867.
The chapters range from ecclesiology, starting with a nuanced essay by Stephen Pickard on the place of the conference within Anglican doctrine of the church, through to history, beginning with an engaging overview by Paul Avis of the different conferences and the role of the Archbishops of Canterbury. Avis prefers to speak of one Lambeth Conference that has met on different occasions rather than of many conferences, showing connectivity and continuity over the last 150 years.
It is helpful to be reminded that self-absenting bishops seems to be a recurrent feature of the conference. Benjamin Guyer does this when he describes how the first conference was perceived to be challenging the supremacy of the monarch over the Church of England, because it suggested Anglicanism was greater than its mother church and its Supreme Governor. This was the reason why a number of northern English bishops, including the Archbishop of York, stayed away.
Some conferences have made important contributions to Anglicans’ understanding of their churches. In a sympathetic portrait of the American Episcopalian theologian William Reed Huntington from Mark Chapman we learn of his role in producing what became known as the Chicago-Lambeth quadrilateral, a general formula which has taken on a defining role within Anglican ecclesiology at the same time as the Articles of Religion (from Tudor times) have declined in influence. The conference is part of a general shift from authoritarian forms of leadership to conciliar forms, especially shown by Jeremy Morris in his description of changing patterns of episcopal leadership within the Church of England.
Another key moment was the 1920 “Appeal to All Christian People”, calling for Christian unity after the devastation of the First World War. The way in which it was agreed is described in vivid detail by Charlotte Methuen. The 2020 conference will commemorate its centenary and hopefully renew Anglican commitment to Christian unity in mission.
There are also informative articles reviewing developments on sex and marriage, and the Covenant, from Andrew Goddard and Gregory Cameron respectively.
It is undeniable that the first conference was called in response to sharp disagreement over the rise of biblical criticism and the stance of Bishop Colenso of Natal, but Ephraim Radner shows that the wider setting of the conference was much more positive, being the century-long missionary movement of Christian growth and expansion across the globe. The 1867 gathering, and many of the subsequent gatherings, were called to support this, not least through the 1920 Appeal and later on the 1988 commitment to a decade of evangelism.
This key insight is illustrated in other essays, such as by Cathy Ross, who quotes Archbishop Longley’s letter of invitation to the first conference in which he invited his brother bishops “to consider together many practical questions, the settlement of which would tend to the advancement of the kingdom of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, and to the maintenance of greater union in our missionary work and to increased intercommunion among ourselves” (page 298).
Among many other informative essays the one by Alyson Barnett-Cowan is important because it describes the different methodologies of the 1998 and 2008 conferences and the differing impacts that these had on the feel and outcomes of the meetings. It is already clear that Lambeth 2020 will be different from both of these, with study and reflection on 1 Peter setting the tone. Unlike 2008 it will also attempt to formulate and pass a number of resolutions reflecting the mind of the conference, hopefully avoiding the fractious polarisation of the 1998 conference.
But what is especially needed, if Lambeth 2020 is to make an impact in its own distinctive way, is for the original mission paradigm again to meld and mould the hearts and minds of participants and sending dioceses, and for the inspiring vision of the 1920 “Appeal” to be honoured and renewed, to create an outward looking, dynamic and diaconal temper for the Anglican Communion as a whole.