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Final Lambeth plenary looks to the Anglican Communion's future

Posted on: August 8, 1998 3:07 PM
Related Categories: Lambeth Conference 1998

By David Skidmore
Lambeth Conference Communications

At the final plenary of Lambeth, a video presentation, panel discussion and address by David Ford, professor of divinity at the University of Cambridge, offered some perspective on the significance of three weeks of meetings, worship, Bible study, debates, garden parties and a cruise on the Thames.

The session titled "The Bible, The World, and the Church: Lambeth 1998 and Beyond," served as a companion piece to the Conference's first plenary presentation, "The Bible, The World, and the Church."

Speaking before nearly 600 bishops and spouses, Dr. Ford-also the keynote speaker for the first plenary-said that the life of the conference has run on the tandem tracks of worship and Bible study.

"The worship has never been without the Bible at its center, and the Bible studies have been embraced by worship," he said. "And at the heart of both Bible and worship is what perhaps unites us most strongly, the desire for God-that hunger and thirst for God which is itself a gift of God."

Though worship and Bible study have not been front-page headlines in the press, they have been the foundation of the Conference's life, helping its members deal with sensitive and contentious issues, he said.

Other themes shape Conference

Also shaping the conference have been the themes of unity and diversity, mission and evangelism, and order and accountability. The Anglican Church has always been in tension over the ordering of its life, he said. While it has avoided an authoritarian structure, it has also resisted a laissez faire approach in which each church is free to interpret the Gospel and the church's teachings according to its own context, one in which "no one is ultimately accountable to anyone else."

This tension between diversity and accountability was most evident, he said, in the study group's work on human sexuality led by Bishop Duncan Buchanan of Johannesburg (South Africa). "They have given us a sign of our agony but also of hope," he said. "Yet it is also clearly unfinished business."

One area where the conference clearly has come together, he said, is in relating the Gospel to social witness, particularly on the issues of international debt and Christian-Islam relations.

Looking to the future

Dr. Ford suggested four themes for bishops to consider when they go home, as a way to ask what the discussions, deliberations and personal epiphanies might mean for the future of the Communion.

One is appreciation for how prayer and worship unites the Communion. Seeing the different forms of worship, and hearing each other's stories in the Bible study groups has helped overcome stereotypes and ignorance, he said. If this sharing can continue, then the Communion can look forward to growing even stronger in its witness. "I suspect that this circulation of specific prayer might well be the most important single preparation for the next Lambeth Conference," he said.

The bishops also need to continue supporting the Communion's networks which connect people on a variety of issues and ministries-immigration, ecumenism, the environment, peacemaking, and youth. Networks, he said, "are essential to a dynamic unity. They are perhaps the most significant transformation in the shaping of our Communion life." Education is a key arena where these networks can be strengthened, for both clergy and laity.

"We will fail them all if they do not receive a Christian faith which invites them into a mind-stretching and lifelong pursuit of truth and wisdom," he said.

Dr. Ford said he was also encouraged by the establishment of the inter-Anglican fund for emergency assistance and development funding to dioceses and provinces, and how it might be a vehicle for the Jubilee 2000 campaign.

"It may be that the sincerity of our demands that creditor nations should forgive unpayable debts will be judged-and not least by God-by the scale of generosity our Communion practices," he said, noting that the conference has challenged provinces to give 0.7 percent of their income to the fund. "What if that really were to happen in poor as well as in richer dioceses?" he asked.

Video captures life of Conference

The video, produced by former BBC producer Angela Tilby and funded by a grant from Trinity Church, New York City, offered a mirror to Conference participants of their three-week experience. Shown in three segments, the video featured interviews with bishops and conference staff interspersed with clips from the opening Eucharist, the plenaries, the afternoon tea party at Buckingham Palace, the Thames River cruise, the spouses' musical "Crowning Glory," and such daily routines of worship, dining hall queues, and bishops ironing their shirts.

Along with scenes of a community coming together were scenes of a community under stress. The Thames River evening boat ride segment included angry gay activists haranguing bishops and spouses as they boarded their boats. In its coverage of the sexuality debate, the video included a montage of newspaper headlines, one declaring "Liberal bishops routed in vote on homosexuals."

Brother Samuel of the Conference chaplaincy team and a life-professed member of the Society of St. Francis, noted on the video that over the three weeks of the Conference, he had a powerful sense of the Anglican Communion coming to life.

"I do perceive that there is a real focus on the vision of God," he said. "People, fundamentally, are here because they want to know God.

The session concluded with a panel discussion on the relationship of scripture, the church and the world, moderated by Dr. Ford. Panelists were Archbishop Harry Goodhew of Sydney (Australia); Bishop James Tengatenga of Southern Malawi (Central Africa); Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the United States; and Archbishop William Moses of Coimbatore (South India).

All four panelists underscored the interdependence of the Bible and the church, though they differed on the role of the church in developing scripture. Bishop Goodhew saw the Bible as the genesis of the church; Bishop Griswold emphasized how the early church gave form to the New Testament, seen most clearly in the Acts of the Apostles.

"Suddenly the early community had to deal with the fact that their world had been expanded," said Bishop Griswold. "Their sense of boundaries overleaped by the Spirit."