Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Can the Lambeth Conference maintain Anglican unity and diversity?

The participants in the consultation on teaching Anglicanism at Trinity College Bristol

Patrick Comerford

The Lambeth Conference, which takes place every ten years, is one of the four instruments of unity in Anglican Communion – along with the Primates’ Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council and the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

However, the plans and preparations for this year’s Lambeth Conference have been overshadowed by deep divisions among Anglican bishops around the world over sexuality and the decisions by some bishops to set up alternative structures within dioceses outside their own territory.

All the bishops of Anglican Communion – including the 12 bishops of the Church of Ireland – have been invited to this year’s Lambeth Conference in July and August. As they prepare to go to Canterbury next month, the world media is watching to see which bishops from around the world will accept the invitation to the Lambeth Conference from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and which bishops will decline.

A full programme

The conference takes place mainly on the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent. Between 10 and 15 July, in a pre-conference hospitality initiative, every bishop and spouse coming to the Lambeth Conference and the parallel Spouses’ Conference is being invited to enjoy the hospitality of an English, Scottish or Welsh diocese, and the bishops who wish to take part are being allocated to a host diocese.

The bishops and their spouses are expected to arrive in Canterbury on 16 July for an official welcome to the conference. Then, on 17 and 18 July in Canterbury Cathedral, and on 19 July on the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent, Archbishop Williams will lead the delegates in a time of retreat.

On the first Sunday of the conference, 20 July, all bishops and spouses will worship together in Canterbury Cathedral. Then, each day of the conference starts and ends in worship. At the start of the day, the same group of eight bishops will gather for Bible study. The Bible study material will be based around the “I AM” sayings of Jesus in Saint John’s Gospel. The groups will be formed on the basis of language and to reflect the rich cultural diversity of the Anglican Communion.

After the Bible studies, the bishops will gather in larger groups of about 40, which are being called “Indaba” groups, to discuss the day’s theme. Afternoon activities include workshops, seminars and discussions, resourced by a variety of groups and individuals from throughout the Anglican Communion.

Conference topics

The conference topics for the expanded group and the self-selecting afternoon sessions during the conference include: biblical interpretation and hermeneutics; ecumenical management; Anglican identity and the role of bishops; issues of Covenant; the listening process within the Anglican Communion; engagement with other faiths; evangelism and mission; gender and sexuality; relationships, including social and family relationships; HIV/Aids; and the Millennium Development Goals.

The first Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, are billed as “Ordinary' Conference Days”, looking at three different themes: Celebrating Common Ground: the bishop and Anglican identity (Monday); Proclaiming the Good News: the bishop and evangelism (Tuesday); and Transforming Society: the bishop and social injustice (Wednesday). On Thursday 24 July, the bishops and their spouses will spend the day in London, where they will be hosted at Lambeth Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dr Jane Williams, and at Buckingham Palace and by Queen Elizabeth. On Friday 25 July and Saturday 26 July, they will discuss discerning our Shared Calling: the bishop, other churches and God's mission; and Safeguarding Creation: the bishop and the environment.

On Sunday 27 July, bishops, spouses and other guests will enjoy the hospitality of a Canterbury parish or the cathedral. Then, on the final week, the programme includes Christian witness in a multifaith world, the bible in mission, human sexuality, the Covenant and the Windsor Process, and a day shared with the spouses’ conference, looking at the abuse of power.

After the final morning groups on 3 August, the bishops and their spouses will join in the closing session followed by worship at Canterbury Cathedral.

Setting out his hopes for this year’s Lambeth Conference in a video message addressed to bishops and dioceses throughout the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams said he hoped that this year’s conference “is essentially a spiritual encounter. A time when people are encountering God as they encounter one another, a time when people will feel that their life of prayer and witness is being deepened and their resources are being stretched. Not a time when we are being besieged by problems that need to be solved and statements that need to be finalised, but a time when people feel that they are growing in their ministry. And for that to happen once again, we are going to need the prayers and the support of so many people around the world.”

Teaching Anglicanism

But given the deep divisions within the Anglican Communion, what are the chances of the hopes of the Archbishop of Canterbury being realised? This was a major topic for discussion at a recent consultation I took part in at Trinity College Bristol.

The consultation was an opportunity to share our current curricula and approaches to teaching Anglicanism, to explore how Anglicanism is increasingly defined by its Global South identity and the implications of this for Anglicanism in the “north,” and to discuss how we help ordinands to think through the current situation in the Anglican Communion and its implications for their ministry.

The keynote speaker was the Revd Canon Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, London, Visiting Professor of Theology and Public Life at Liverpool Hope University, a member of the Inter Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission and of ARCIC (the Anglican-Roman Catholic international Commission), and author of Christian Tradition and the Practice of Justice. Clare Amos, Director of Theological Studies, Anglican Communion, spoke about the work of Theological Education in the Anglican Communion (TEAC) working group. I was invited to give a presentation on the teaching of Anglicanism at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

The other participants included staff members of Trinity College Bristol, the staff of local and regional ministry training programmes in Cambridge, Lichfield, Manchester, Norwich, Salisbury, and academics who teach Anglican studies at Oak Hill Theological College (London), the Queen’s Foundation (Birmingham), Ripon College, Cuddesdon (Oxford), Westcott House (Cambridge), the College of the Transfiguration, Grahamstown (South Africa) and the University of the South, Sewanee (Tennessee).

‘Careful balancing act’

Canon Sagovsky is the author of many books and articles on theology, ecumenism and social justice, and has contributed vigorously to debates in Britain on key social justice issues such as benefit levels, debt, the community charge, the nature of capitalism and asylum. He spoke in Bristol about how the Anglican Communion holds together the various traditions that might be described as High Church, Low Church, Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical and Liberal in creative tension and he held up Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral as two contrasting images of the Church of England, with Westminster Abbey embodying an intimate relationship with the monarchy since the reign of Saint Edmund the Confessor, while Thomas a Becket at Canterbury presented the clash with the monarchy.

He said the present debates in the Anglican Communion on gender and sexuality were about how we read the Bible, and is “a re-run of a central Reformation debate.” During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Church of England had been barely held together through a “careful balancing act.” He asked whether we have now “reached the point where we have to go our separate ways,” or whether we have to see maintaining unity as “a means towards reaching truth.”

Pointing out the differences between a communion and a federation of churches, he said koinonia involved communion and mutual participation, and he asked whether the Anglican Communion was in danger of “trading down.”

He said the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral was a key document in Anglican self-understanding, with its emphasis on Scripture, the Creeds, the Sacraments, and the historic episcopate. Yet, he said, each one of these four key elements had been the subject of debate within the Anglican Communion without leading to a major breach. The Church has decided what is Scripture when it comes to debates about the ending of Saint Mark’s Gospel and the “Johannine comma”; the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed is often silently and unilaterally dropped while the Athanasian Creed has been quietly abandoned; debates continue over what happens at Baptism and in the Eucharist; and the Church of England and other member churches of the Anglican Communion are still debating whether the historic episcopate can accommodate women.

He said Anglicanism was marked by a practical approach to living with diversity among Christians, displayed by staying with problems rather than walking away from them. He said the Anglican weakness in the area of authority was “a weakness for the whole Church” and a “gift for the whole church.”

On a positive note ahead of the Lambeth Conference, Dr Sagovsky said the discussions about an Anglican Covenant are now “at an exciting stage,” he said, adding that he was more optimistic now about the future of the Anglican Communion. It was important to have these discussions before the Lambeth Conference, he said, but he added: “I’m hopeful.”

Creating and maintaining

In a similar tone, Clare Amos, who has taught theology in the Middle East and at Cambridge, pointed to the need to constantly appreciate Anglicanism as a tradition that maintained unity and diversity in the tensions between how we create and how we maintain.

As a diverse group of theological educators, we enjoyed our unity together, sharing walks across the Downs to look over the Avon Gorge at Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, or visiting Bristol Cathedral, a former abbey that became a cathedral with the formation of the new Diocese of Bristol in 1542. We were drawn from all traditions within Anglicanism, with experiences in many of the member churches and from all continents.

On the final day we were able to share together in the Eucharist in the college chapel. If I thought the bishops at the Lambeth Conference next month could be as open and honest with one another and maintain their unity while respecting their diversity as we were at Trinity College Bristol, I could share Canon Sagovsky’s optimism.

I wonder.

And I pray.

The Lambeth Conference Prayer:

Pour down upon us, O God, the gifts of your Holy Spirit, that those who prepare for the Lambeth Conference may be filled with wisdom and understanding. May they know at work within them that creative energy and vision which belong to our humanity, made in your image and redeemed by your love, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Youtube link to the Archbishop of Canterbury on the Lambeth Conference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCJ1G_3WPjw

This essay was first published in the June editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).