By Calvin Lane
As the 2020 Lambeth Conference approaches, Anglicans are unclear about precisely what its status is, or should be. “The Lambeth Conference has never been a body with legislative authority; it is a gathering for conversation and prayer.” This is an undeniable historical fact. And, indeed, in those hallowed days when our own Episcopal Church was founded, there was nothing called the “Anglican Communion.”
The Anglican Communion itself, when it emerged more clearly in the nineteenth century, had very little definition until the start of the twentieth. At the Lambeth Conference of 1930 the assembled bishops declared that the Communion was not governed by a central legislative authority but rather by “mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference.”
Yes, these are all facts, undeniable data of history. What, though, do these historical facts, especially the one about the Lambeth Conference, mean for us here and now? This is a question about tradition, how we live with that which has been handed down to us and which, if we’re being honest, has shaped us in ways we might not always recognize.
There is no denying that when Archbishop C. T. Longley convened the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 it was not supposed to be a synod. When the 76 bishops gathered at Lambeth Palace on the Thames in London, Archbishop Longley even said in his opening address that the gathering was not to be a general synod. Note likewise the resistance to this gathering in the first place, a resistance founded on arguments that such a conference violated tradition. The Archbishop of York and many English bishops felt they had no obligation to attend the first Lambeth Conference, believing that this gathering was not in keeping with the existing polity of the Church of England. And, they noted, there was no mandate from the crown either. Thus, snubbing foreigners, the dean of Westminster Abbey did not allow the final service to be held there. Certainly in 1867 there was a good deal of nationalism opposing the first Lambeth Conference: each to his own.
Let me make four points in response.
First, and perhaps most obviously, we should ask if this anemic Erastianism (a sensibility that national identity takes precedence over globalism and catholicity) is what Jesus prayed for in John 17:21, that his disciples might be one just as he and the Father are one? Is this the spirit we find in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church? Is this the kind of mutual forbearance Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 11:33, his commendation to outdo each other in honoring each other in Romans 12:10, his mandate to preserve unity in Ephesians 4:3, or his paean to the climate of sacrificial love within the church in 1 Corinthians 13? Is this insular nationalism in keeping with Peter’s dictum to love one another as love covers many sins (1 Peter 4:8)? Is this deep-seated sense of regionalism and independence reflective of the hard-bitten climate of the first ecumenical councils, gatherings whose acrimony highlights the early Christian hunger for unity?
I really don’t think so. I simply can’t believe the nationalistic hesitations surrounding the first Lambeth Conference should limit global Anglicanism’s steady advance toward greater unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ, a unity marked by sacrifice, mission, mutual forbearance, and love.
Second, let’s complicate the historical narrative just a bit. The first Lambeth Conference was meant to bring global Anglicanism into a closer unity. Discussion of a pan-Anglican synod was in air in the middle of the nineteenth century, well before Longley issued his invitations. For example, calls for a global synod were voiced at the Jubilee celebration of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in 1851. Nevertheless, the precise origin of the first Lambeth Conference was a letter from Canadian Anglicans in 1865. They wrote, with urgency, to Archbishop Longley asking him to convene some global assembly. Their specific concern was the possibility of an increasing diversity of canons – ways of living as church – that would spin Anglicans further and further from each other. This emphasis on canons, not simply time together and prayer, should not be quickly set aside. The cause of the Lambeth Conference was the perceived need for formal discipline.
And if we accept Longley’s words about the first Lambeth Conference not being a synod, then what do we make of the conclusion drawn during that same conference that there needs to be a synod with real authority above the provinces, to maintain the faith and unity of the Anglican Communion?
Yes, there was a lot of handwringing at the first Lambeth Conference that it was not a synod. But the outcome is more complex than that, and if we look further down the road, the complications do not stop. For example, even though the 1930 Lambeth Conference asserted that the Communion is not currently governed by a central authority, the piecemeal claims made by the successive Lambeth Conferences, as Ephraim Radner has observed, “enjoyed an almost universal stability of acceptance among those who participated in the various gatherings, networks, and widening interchange among Anglicans that characterized the life of an increasingly globalized set of Churches from the early nineteenth century on.”
Third, when facing any claim that a given phenomenon in the church must remain as it was at its constitution, preserved in amber, we find ourselves in need of a robust theology of tradition. While there is not space here to fully lay out such a theology (see some of my previous reflections on this theme), it needs to be said that the church is always tempted by twin sins. On the one hand, we might think nothing ever changes and the past is simply to be replicated. This is the conservative ditch. It is traditionalism, a dead museum faith, to borrow from Jaroslav Pelikan.
On the other hand, we might think the past has no claims on the present, that it is populated by people whose lives were so different from our own that they might as well be aliens from another planet. This is the liberal ditch, a perspective that denies the universal implications of the Incarnation and the communion of the saints in both space and time, to borrow from Rowan Williams. A healthy approach to tradition sees the inheritance of the past as neither meaningless token nor all-consuming idol, but rather as an icon whose particularity mediates universal meaning (again Pelikan).
Moreover, I’m not so sure that the formation of the Lambeth Conference even merits that level of sophistication. It started in 1867. Some of us serve parishes older than that! The bigger question, regarding tradition, is what did the early church look like? That is the tradition we ought to be seeking. And so, when we look back at the constitutive moment for the Lambeth Conference, the big question is… so what? Why can’t a phenomenon only a century and half old evolve to meet the needs of the global church and its mission? As an aside, it is intriguing that some who are comfortable moving away from the church’s much older tradition on marriage and sex are invoking a tradition from the modern era as if it is sacrosanct.
Fourth, let’s get a grip on reality and observe some other undeniable facts. The truth is that global Anglicanism is moving toward greater degrees of unity. The Episcopal Church is getting smaller every year. The numeric majority, globally, are walking together. On the one hand, GAFCON and many voices clamor to functionally disconnect from the see of Canterbury and quit the Lambeth Conference. On the other hand, there are voices with yet another narrative. They insist that Lambeth has never been a synod, that it may not possesses meaningful authority, that this is the way it must be, world without end, Amen.
But let’s ask the question found in the title of this piece. Even if we discount the complications with the problematic claim that Lambeth was not meant to be a synod, why can’t this body grow into something else? The Erastian nationalism that derailed the first Lambeth Conference from a trajectory of deeper unity ought not to be propped up as a sacred and inviolate tradition. Why can’t Lambeth become a synod? Whatever our answers to this question, we must recognize that the historical case against synodality for Lambeth rests upon a rather unattractive nationalism, and is simply untenable.
Calvin Lane is associate rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio, affiliate professor of church history at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor of history at Wright State University in Dayton.