Lambeth 1920 and Its Legacy Today

By Mark Michael

View photos of the Lambeth conference

Church leaders and theologians from around the world gathered at Lambeth Palace and Westminster Abbey October 2-3 for a colloquium on the legacy of the groundbreaking 1920 Lambeth Conference, as preparations continue for Lambeth 2020.

Entitled “God Wills Fellowship,” the colloquium took its name from a famous phrase of the “Appeal to All Christian People,” a resolution adopted by the bishops meeting at Lambeth Palace in 1920 to advance the nascent movement of Christian unity.

Convened in the same place nearly 100 years on, colloquium speakers and attendees considered Lambeth 1920’s impact on the ecumenical movement it helped to spawn, its particular claims about the meaning and purpose of the Church, and its relevance for the current challenges of bringing together a divided Anglican Communion.

Jeremy Worthen

The Rev. Canon Jeremy Worthen, the Church of England’s Secretary for Ecumenical Relations and Theology, one of the colloquium’s organizers, said that the event aimed to consider “how far our task is to recover what Lambeth 1920 was about and how far the task of the present moment is to recognize that it marked a wonderful road that has reached its end, and we need to find some new paths and avenues to explore at the present moment.”

“That applies particularly to Anglican engagement with ecumenism,” Worthen continued, “but I think Anglican engagement with ecumenism is inseparable from the life of the Anglican Communion. The forthcoming Lambeth Conference is a key opportunity to take stock and reflect and ask where we think we are going and what we think it means to work together and what Anglicans have to offer to an ecumenical movement that faces many challenges.”

The colloquium’s other leaders were Dr. Christopher Wells, Executive Director of The Living Church Foundation, and the Rev. Will Adam, who serves as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Ecumenical Advisor and Director of Unity, Faith and Order for the Anglican Communion. The event was also sponsored by the Communion Partners, Virginia Theological Seminary, Westminster Abbey, and Wycliffe College, Toronto.

The Adventure of Fellowship

Gathering in the aftermath of the First World War and out of a renewed focus on mission, bishops at the 1920 Lambeth Conference were convinced that the time was ripe for “an adventure of goodwill and still more of faith.” They wrote: “We believe that the Holy Spirit has called us in a very solemn and special manner to associate ourselves in penitence and prayer with all those who deplore the divisions of Christian people, and are inspired by the vision and hope of a visible unity of the whole Church.”

They went on to confess Anglicanism’s share in the “self-will, ambition, and lack of charity” that had limited united Christian witness in the world, and to express their willingness to let go of “local, sectional, and temporary prepossessions” for the sake of deeper fellowship. “The spiritual leadership of the Catholic Church in days to come, for which the world is manifestly waiting, depends upon the readiness with which each group is prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of a common fellowship, a common ministry, and a common service in the world.”

The Lambeth Appeal to all Christian People, the event organizers noted, “set the trajectory and shaped the terms for global Faith and Order ecumenism and located Anglicans at the heart of that work.” The appeal’s articulation of the priority of unity and the value of mutual sacrifice deeply shaped subsequent Anglican teaching about the Church — from many multilateral and bilateral texts of the ecumenical movement, right up to The Windsor Report of 2004 and The Anglican Communion Covenant of 2009.  The Covenant, an attempt to chart a way forward in the aftermath of divisions provoked by the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003, was adopted by about a quarter of the Communion’s provinces, but has received little attention in recent years.

Ephraim Radner

Professor Ephraim Radner of Wycliffe College, Toronto, who served on the Covenant Design Group, called the Covenant a legitimate outgrowth of the Lambeth Appeal, and said future reconciliation within the Communion will demand some kind of “corporate ascetic” like its strategy of mutual restraint. Nonetheless, he confessed, “the Covenant came a bit too late, and did not come out of a common agreement. No one said, ‘This is what we want.’ It was an attempt to see if it was possible to pull the horses back.”

Radner noted that the Lambeth Conference has not met since the publication of the final text of the Covenant in 2009. “As we look to the Lambeth Conference next year,” he noted, “none of these issues have been resolved or even discussed in a decisive way. People do not have a forum in which to voice questions and to come to consensus about these matters. If something positive is going to come out of [the 2020 Lambeth Conference], there needs to be some preparation so that instability does not become the context in which the discussion takes place.”

A Thick Rationale

Radner developed these claims later at Saint Margaret’s, Westminster, the traditional parish church of Parliament. In an address entitled “Is There a Rationale for the Anglican Communion?” he described “a thick rationale” that he said “is filled with a range of ends, demands lots of work, [and] imagines God doing all kinds of things. A thick rationale results, therefore, in a wider and deeper communion.”

Radner contrasted thick rationales, which he sees in the historic emergence of the Anglican Communion and the 1920 Lambeth Appeal, with “thinner rationales,” like treating the Communion as “a tool for social progress” or defining its existence in terms of “strict principles of governance or limited legal relationships.”  Such “thin rationales,” he said, lead inevitably to weakened bonds, “because what doesn’t fit the rule or principle or what seems to demand too much is easily discarded or broken.”

The statement “God wills fellowship,” he said, “functioned in a real way as a kind of undergirding rationale for the Anglican Communion over a number of decades. Those words shifted in their implications over the years from thick to thin. It emerged from a look into a rich and difficult reality of human life ordered by God in Christ within a fallen world. That’s really thick. Then these words became almost an achievable ideology within twentieth century Anglicanism, which began thinning them out.  And then, finally, the phrase became a mantra for respectful coexistence or condescending tolerance, under the aegis of ill-defined ‘bonds of affection.’”

Through an extended exegesis of the account of Pentecost in the Book of Acts, Radner argued that the fellowship God wills is a command, as well as a gift. “We are called to obedience in a way that must at least break our hearts and drive us to our knees, even while it lifts us up.” He continued, “repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ Name, a new existence in flight from this present age of wickedness, the steady centering of life in common teaching, prayer, and material sharing. All this is what we call fellowship, or communion. Not as an abstract theological generalization, not as a set of principles, but as the historic ordering of all the nations to the sacrificial Lamb of God. All of this embodies the bonds of affection that communion expresses.”

Sketching the Lambeth 1920 Legacy

Scholars and church leaders pondered the current vocation of Anglicanism amid deep division, and some bishops expressed hope that the Lambeth 1920 vision might shape the work of the Lambeth Conference next year.

Michael Root

Professor Michael Root of the Catholic University of America, a veteran ecumenical theologian, said we are “at the end of a period of revolutionary ecumenism, and are entering into a time of normal ecumenism, in which churches are highly resistant to change.” He credited Lambeth 1920 with setting a consistent strategy for Anglican ecumenism in its approach to all Christians and its “pragmatic appeal for episcopacy as a form of ministry acknowledged by all parts of the Church.”

The results of the strategy, Root said, have been mixed. “If the goal is the visible unity of the Church, it seems that very little progress has been made. But in terms of attitudes and practices on the ground, barriers in hearts and minds being lifted, [the] fellowship across ecclesial divisions is far warmer.” But is this really a “change of heart, or a deference to the norms of consumer capitalism? Less like the difference between truth and falsity and more like the difference between Coke and Pepsi, an opposition to monopolies that limit consumer choice.”

Anglicanism’s more recent failure to define “the foundations and limits of the Church’s decision-making powers” have made its common self-image as both Catholic and Protestant less sustainable. “Anglicanism may think of itself as a bridge church,” he quipped, “but a bridge is not a safe place to stand when land masses are moving in opposite directions.” Anglicanism’s pragmatic appeal for the episcopacy, Root added, has seldom been received with much enthusiasm by Protestants. The episcopacy, he said, has often functioned as a “dead mouse gift, valuable to the giver, but not to the recipient.”

Christopher Wells

In his presentation, Christopher Wells emphasized the Lambeth Appeal’s undergirding in a traditional Anglican understanding of the Church as “invisible, visible, and mixed.” Developed out of St. Augustine’s teaching and refined by 16th-century theologian Richard Hooker, this approach emphasizes “the Church’s breadth in history, the variety of its members and institutional settings, which may be adjusted according to the vagaries of time and population.” In the current moment, he stressed, Anglicans must persist in patient humility, avoiding the dangers of “an over-realized eschatology,” according to which we try to determine God’s ways before his decisive verdict at the end of time.

Hannah Matis

Professor Hannah Matis of Virginia Theological Seminary acknowledged that the bishops coming to Lambeth 2020 will face a challenging communication gap. “Can Lambeth imagine itself as something beyond a gathering of bishops and primates?” she asked. “How will it make contact with so many in our churches that have no real understanding of what Anglicanism is really about? If we are to have real communion, we need to teach a new generation of lay people what communion is and why it matters.”

Jeremiah Yang

The Rev. Jeremiah Yang of Sung Kong Ho University in South Korea argued that there are powerful strands in contemporary geopolitics that mirror the hegemonic and isolationist trends of the era before the First World War. Yang called for “a more catholic and more missionary framework” for the work of Christian unity, looking beyond the healing of the divisions of the European Reformation to “a commitment to witness God’s love for the whole people of the world.” He focused especially on the need for Asian churches to become more fully enculturated, and to respond together to pressing social challenges like climate change and human exploitation.

Yang said he hopes the bishops who gather for Lambeth next summer will “in spite of all the resentment and anger towards brothers and sisters, just sit together in silent prayer, listen to God and others whom we have ignored because of our own conflicts and wounds.” Looking to the world’s larger need for unity and cooperation may spark renewal, Yang suggested. “When we dare to be open and vulnerable to those others outside of our communion; when we encounter the intensity of otherness, we will see again the way to move beyond the present division and conflict in our Communion.”

Joseph Wandera

Bishop Joseph Wandera of the Diocese of Mumias, Kenya, said he believes global trends that make communion more difficult also reinforce how essential it is to the Church’s life and work. Wandera listed a series of challenges, including “fragmented theological education, which inhibits authentic conversations around the problems we have; huge geopolitical shifts that inject into our fellowship a notion of standoff; and the resurgence of inflexible Pentecostalism and Islamic extremism. These changes bring a sense of local [Anglicans] being measured by the standards of other communities, and our witness being judged by the actions of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.”

In later conversation, Wandera added: “‘God wills fellowship’ is relevant for Lambeth 2020, coming at a time when as an Anglican Communion we face challenges, and yet we still belong to one family. There may be disagreements here and there on a few issues, but God’s call supersedes the challenges that we are facing. And so, I think it’s about remaining [at] the table and remaining in conversation because that is what God desires of us. I hope that the Lambeth Conference will energize us and remind us evermore about that call to fellowship.”

Jenny Andison

Bishop Jenny Andison, a suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Toronto, said she approaches next summer’s Lambeth Conference with “a deep sense of grief and lament.” Surveying the deep divisions in the diocese she serves, she said that the bishops must consider “a call to repentance for the way our divisions have obscured our witness.” Andison said she was moved by Professor Radner’s summons of the Communion to a form of “corporate asceticism,” but wondered to what extent “the bishops who will gather together” next summer will be able to practice it. “What can we lay down sacrificially, what can we restrain ourselves from to preserve communion as well as to deepen our common life?” she asked.

Christopher Cocksworth

Bishop Christopher Cocksworth, the Bishop of Coventry and Chair of the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission, said he was deeply moved by the perceptive secular voice of the 1920 Lambeth Conference. “It managed to speak to the world, to the international situation, particularly to the deep needs of humanity post-First World War, and at the same time to the churches, and trying to move, as it were, with the movement of the Spirit. The bishops sensed that the Holy Spirit was up to something and they wanted to move with the Spirit, and they used primarily theological, but also very accessible, language and categories to hold those two together.”

“What makes it so interesting for 2020,” Cocksworth concluded, “is what can the bishops now, even much more international than they were in 1920, what can they say to the world, to the situation of humanity now? Can they hear what the Spirit is saying to the world and what the Spirit is saying to the churches?”

Jane Williams

Dr. Jane Williams of St. Mellitus College in London, the conference’s final speaker, echoed Radner’s emphasis on fellowship as both God’s gift and demand. “What if we already have the gifts we need to recognize our fellowship?” she asked. Williams called conference participants to urgent action. “Maybe we don’t need any more faith, but to use what you’ve got. We’ve been given Scripture and sacraments, and we have made them a source of division instead of fellowship, and yet all over the world these gifts make and send the people of God.”

Citing 2 Corinthians 6, Williams concluded, “Perhaps the Anglican Communion has still this thing to contribute in fellowship with the world’s Church. We admit that we are hurt, sick, beaten, defeated, broken, and utterly dependent on the gifts of God. We have nothing of our own and yet we possess all things because we are Christ’s. What if tomorrow our souls are required of us? What will we have to show for the gifts he has given us?”

View photos of the Lambeth conference


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