Lambeth Palace ... the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury gives its name to the Lambeth Conferences
The Anglican Communion 2: The First Lambeth Conference, 1867
The first Lambeth Conference, which met in 1867, was called as a result of the response within the Anglican Church of Canada to the heresy trial of John Colenso, Bishop of Natal, and the ensuing mess left by Colenso being deposed by Robert Gray, Archbishop of Cape Town, and the failure of the Courts in England to clarify the standing of Anglican bishops and the Churches in the colonies.
On 20 September 1865, the Irish-born missionary, Bishop John Travers Lewis (1825-1901) of Ontario, tabled a motion that received unanimous support from the Provincial Synod of the Canadian Church, urging the Archbishop and Convocation of Canterbury to call a “General Council” representative of “the members of our Anglican Communion in all quarters of the world ... gathered from every land.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley, responded positively, but decided first that he must consult his episcopal brothers “in both branches of the united Church of England and Ireland.”
Eventually, the Convocation of Canterbury agreed to support sending out an invitation to all bishops in communion with the Church of England. But it was agreed that any conference could not enact any canons or reach any decisions binding on the Church.
Bishop John Colenso ... he weas not invited to the first Lambeth Conference
At the time, there were 145 bishops in the Anglican Communion world-wide – if Colenso is included in this count. The invitation to the first conference was sent from Lambeth Palace on 22 February 1867 to 144 bishops of the Anglican Communion, including the 12 bishops of the Church of Ireland. In addition, there were Irish bishops working with the Churches overseas, including Lewis of Ontario.
2, Preparatory discussions
A number of preparatory meetings were held before the conference was convened, and these were attended by the Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin and the Bishops of Meath and Down.
A number of clear priorities for the conference, including visible church unity and mission, emerged as central themes at these meetings and the debates they produced.
The Bishop of Montreal, Francis Fulford (1803-1868) – who would play a key role at the conference – saw Anglican unity as a step towards eventual unity or reunion with the English Nonconformists, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Scandinavian Church, and even the Church of Rome. In 1861, as Metropolitan of Canada, he had called the first provincial synod of the “United Church of England and Ireland in Canada” in Montreal.
The Cork-born Bishop of Ontario, John Travers Lewis, wanted the conference to discuss methods of bringing about inter-communion with the Greek and Scandinavian Churches.
Bishop Horatio Southgate (1812-1894), who had once been the American Episcopal bishop in Constantinople but was by then a parish rector in New York, wanted to restore the Creed of Nicaea and Constantinople to its original state by removing the filioque clause in the hope of advancing relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Some bishops even suggested conferring the title of Patriarch on the Archbishop of Canterbury.
On the other hand, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, Arthur Stanley, objected to the invitation to the Episcopal Church in the US, pointing out that that Church had abandoned the Athanasian Creed. At the same time, he pleaded for the invitation to be extended to the Lutheran Churches of Scandinavia.
3, Conference debates
Bishop John Travers Lewis ... a Cork-born bishop who played a crucial role in the calling of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867
Eventually, the conference met at Lambeth Palace for four days from 24 to 27 September 1867. The invitation was accepted by 76 bishops, including 18 English bishops, six from the Scottish Episcopal Church, and five from the Church of Ireland: the archbishops of Armagh (Beresford) and Dublin (Trench), and the bishops of Meath (Butler), Kilmore (Verschoyle) and Limerick (Graves).
In addition, there were 24 bishops from the Churches in the colonies, including Cork-born John Travers Lewis from Ontario, and 19 from the US.
A number of English bishops, however, refused to attend, including the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Durham. No one session was attended by all the bishops present – and only Beresford of Armagh and Butcher of Meath were present for the formal photograph.
But the signatures of all the bishops were printed with the final encyclical letter, and the names of several bishops who were unable to attend were added to the list.
In their resolutions, the bishops described themselves as the “Bishops of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church in visible Communion with the United Church of England and Ireland.”
At the opening service of Holy Communion, Archbishop Trench of Dublin read the Epistle and Archbishop Beresford of Armagh read the Gospel: in the absence of the Archbishop of York, the Archbishop of Canterbury was finding ways of demonstrating that the two Irish archbishops were Primates in their own right too.
At the opening of the conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury had the two Irish archbishops seated to his immediate right and left: seated to his right were the Archbishop of Armagh, the Bishop of London (the most senior-ranking bishop in the Province of Canterbury, but also the Bishop of the capital of the Empire), the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, the Primus of Scotland, the Bishop of Calcutta (India) and the Bishop of Sydney (Australia); ranged to his left were the Archbishop of Dublin, the Bishop of Montreal (an interesting precedent given the role of the Canadian Church in prompting this conference), and the Bishops of New Zealand and Cape Town.
Obviously, there was an intention to visibly symbolise the universal nature of a communion spread across every continent; there was a visible impression that the home churches were the Church of England, the Church of Ireland and the Scottish Episcopal Church; and there was the clear sign that the American church had not separated from the other Anglican churches.
But the gathering was not a synod, and any attempts to make it one were strongly resisted. The Archbishop of Canterbury had difficulty in keeping the bishops to the agenda, and this drew a negative reaction from some of the Bishops of the Church of England who had agreed to attend only after they had debated and accepted the initial agenda. Their worries and fears were that their independent exercise of episcopal authority within their dioceses might be infringed upon.
On the first day, the bishops produced a preamble that included a reference to “the first Four General Councils” of the church. Some bishops were quite insistent that the reference should be to four, not six, councils; others felt that any reference to any councils would detract from the supremacy of Scripture.
In the end the words “General Councils” were retained, without number, although the first four councils would eventually become a sort of benchmark for Anglicans in deciding what acceptable and orthodox doctrine was.
A more important statement in the preamble was the expression of “ardently longing” for church unity, which would continue to be an important agenda item for successive Lambeth conferences. And so naturally the main agenda items for the conference were Anglican unity, the colonial churches and co-operation in mission.
The conference spent its first day considering inter-communion between the Anglican Churches, recognising the real fear that the lack of formal links could cause a breakdown in relations between the different Anglican Churches.
On the second day, the conference turned its attention to the Churches in the colonies, and despite the protests of several bishops, Longley agreed to a request from Gray to change the already-agreed programme and an unexpected debate opened up on the grades of synodical authority within the Anglican Communion, including diocesan, provincial and perhaps even patriarchal synods. But all the conference could agree on was a general resolution calling for the maintenance of unity of faith and discipline, and a committee was appointed to report on the subject.
When it came to the debate on mission on the third day, Gray was anxious to gain support for his action against Colenso.
The Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church was ruled out of order when he tried to introduce a resolution of condemnation.
The Bishop of Vermont felt a resolution from Bishop Selwyn of New Zealand did not go far enough, and that it should declare Colenso deposed and excommunicated.
Eventually, the bishops agreed, in a 49-10 vote, that the situation in Natal had deeply injured the whole Anglican Communion. Once again a committee was appointed to draft a letter on the subject.
The bishops discussed setting up a Spiritual Court of Appeal, but once again this was referred to a committee to consider. The conference agreed that a short “encyclical letter” should be signed by the bishops, but this too was committed to a committee to draft.
When a second and unexpected debate on the Colenso affair arose, and the bishops eventually agreed 43-3 on the procedures to be put in place for choosing and consecrating a new bishop for the Diocese of Natal.
In all, the conference passed 13 resolutions, perhaps the most important being one calling for a synod or synods above the provincial synods, in order to maintain unity in faith and discipline; another calling for a voluntary spiritual tribunal to hear appeals beyond provincial level; and two resolutions supporting Gray’s action against Colenso. But the resolutions also looked at the principles under which the Book of Common Prayer should be revised
Westminster Abbey: Dean Arthur Stanley refused its use for the closing service at the end of the first Lambeth Conference
The bishops who formed the drafting committees were asked to stay on in England, and the conference closed on the Friday evening. On the Saturday, 34 bishops attended a closing communion service in Lambeth Parish Church. It had been expected that this would take place in Westminster Abbey, but Dean Stanley had refused the use of the abbey except for some form of mission service. The bishops could attend, but they would have to make it clear that any such service was being held “without any relation to the Conference itself.”
During the next few months, the drafting committees met, and they presented their reports, nine in all, at a further session on 10 December.
Six resolutions were passed at the adjourned conference. But by now most of the bishops had returned home, and so the reports were simply received and sent for publication, without any real debate. It was realised that this first Lambeth conference had not been organised in a way that allowed the bishops to work efficiently and to carry that work forward. Another Lambeth Conference was inevitable – and that would make both the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Communion institutions.
4, Achievements and failures
The first Lambeth Conference failed to achieve any great accomplishments. Despite the preliminary debates that discussed mission, unity, inter-communion with the Scandinavian Churches, and even the removal of the filioque clause, many of its final reports and resolutions look like petty, internal housekeeping.
But the significance of the first Lambeth Conference lies not in those reports and resolutions but in the very fact that it had met. The Anglican Communion, a concept only first articulated in 1851, now had a visible structure of unity in the forum of the Lambeth Conference. This unity would be maintained despite the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.
To put that first Lambeth Conference into the context of its time, we must remember it met at the same time Pope Pius IX was planning to call the first Vatican Council, held in 1869-1870. It was a time when the larger Church groupings were afraid of fraying at the edges, needed to show their unity, needed a visible forum for debate, and were seeking visible signs of authority.
For Roman Catholics, that would be expressed in the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Anglicans, however, would opt for a more diffuse form of authority, and have refused over the decades either to confer the title of Patriarch on the Archbishop of Canterbury, or to give super-synodical powers to the Lambeth Conferences.
Nor should the timing of this first Lambeth Conference be separated from the political climate globally.
Many pointed out that the American Civil War had just ended, and that such a conference would not have been possible a few years earlier.
Others pointed out that the conference was meeting in the climate of the great powers of Europe being at peace for the first time in living memory.
And, of course, this of course was the year in which Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and in which Karl Mark published the first part of Das Kapital.
A second Lambeth Conference would meet in 1878, and the conferences have met since then at roughly 10-year intervals.
In all, there have been 14 Lambeth Conferences: the last one in Canterbury in July and August 2008. Will there be another one in 2018?
Whatever happens, the Lambeth Conference has developed into a deliberative body, convened solely at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It still has no canonical or constitutional status, although it has enhanced the archbishop’s primacy within the Anglican Communion.
For some, these are weaknesses, for others these are strengths.
5, Huntington’s proposals
William Reed Huntington: his formula eventually led to the Lambeth Quadrilateral
The next conference took place in 1878. But another important event in the life of the Anglican Communion before that, in 1870, with the publication by an American Episcopal priest, William Reed Huntington (1838-1909), of his book, The Church Idea, An Essay toward Unity.
Huntington later became rector of Grace Church, an influential New York parish. Although never a bishop, Huntington had more influence on the Episcopal Church – perhaps even on the Anglican Communion – than most bishops.
Huntington’s proposals in the Church Idea were aimed initially at establishing what he described as “a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing, made toward Home Reunion” – his way of describing Anglican reunion with the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. But his proposals eventually helped the formulation of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which summarised four elements that would help both define what an Anglican Church is and what Anglicans would accept as the basis for talks on Church unity.
Huntington was worried about what the word Anglicanism conveyed, and its nostalgic appeal. “The word brings up before the eyes of some a flutter of surplices, a vision of village spires and cathedral towers, a somewhat stiff and stately company of deans, prebendaries and choristers, and that is about all.” [The Church Idea, p. 124].
And he warned:
“If our whole ambition as Anglicans in America be to continue a small, but eminently respectable body of Christians, and to offer a refuge to people of refinement and sensibility, who are shocked by the irreverences they are apt to encounter elsewhere; in a word, if we are to be only a countercheck and not a force in society; then let us say as much in plain terms, and frankly renounce all claims to Catholicity. We have only, in such a case, to wrap the robe of our dignity about us, and walk quietly along in a seclusion no one will take much trouble to disturb. Thus may we be a Church in name, and a sect in deed.”
It is interesting to note that Huntington was anticipating by 50 years Ernst Troeltsch’s formative church-sect typology.
But Huntingdon’s vision of the Church was formed by a very deep theology. He wrote:
“But if we aim at something nobler than this, if we would have our Communion become national in very truth, – in other words, if we would bring the Church of Christ into the closest possible sympathy with the throbbing, sorrowing, sinning, repenting, aspiring heart of this great people, – then let us press our reasonable claims to be the reconciler of a divided household, not in a spirit of arrogance (which ill befits those whose best possessions have come to them by inheritance), but with affectionate earnestness and intelligent zeal.” [p. 159.]
And so, in pursuit of those claims, Huntingdon laid out his four principles:
● The Holy Scriptures as the Word of God;
● The Primitive Creeds as the Rule of Faith;
● The two sacraments ordained by Christ himself (i.e., Baptism and Holy Communion); and
● The Episcopate as the keystone of Governmental Unity.
Huntingdon’s proposal has stood for almost a century and a half as a cornerstone of Anglican ecclesiology and Anglican ecumenical endeavour. They were eventually adopted at the 1888 conference, and the formula has become known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.
Next week (Wednesday 4 February 2009, 2-4 p.m.), I hope we can look at how that formula was debated, and received, and to look at the 1878 conference and the 1888 conference, and to see how they developed not only a more efficient way of meeting and deliberating. We can ask how the bishops at the Lambeth Conferences started to deal with change, how they started to do theology, and how they started to shape and define Anglican ecclesiology as a consequence of Huntingdon’s book.
Then, in the following session (Monday 16 February 2009, 2-4 p.m.), I hope we can look at the other Lambeth conferences, and ask whether they were momentous or important, and look at the instruments of unity in the Anglican Communion
And in our final week (Wednesday, 18 February 2009, 2-4 p.m.), we can look at the unity and divisions within the Anglican Communion, discuss the Windsor Report, the Covenant proposals, GAFCON, Lambeth 2008, and the future of the Anglican Communion.
Appendix 1: The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral
In the opinion of this conference, the following articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made towards home reunion:
A, The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
B, The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
C, The two sacraments ordained by Christ himself – Baptism and the Supper of the Lord – ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution, and of the elements ordained by him.
D, The historic episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of his Church.
Lambeth Conference 1888, Resolution 11
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This lecture on Monday 26 January 2009 was part of the Year III B.Th. course: The Anglican Communion