Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Faithful Church, Plural World: Diversity at Lambeth 1998

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Faithful Church, Plural World: Diversity at Lambeth 1998

Article excerpt

Forsooth it is a troublous thing to agree upon a doctrine of things of such controversy, with judgments of such diversity, every[one] (I trust) meaning well, and yet not all meaning one way.

- Hugh Latimer1

When the first Lambeth Conference met more than a century ago, all its bishops were male, nearly all were white, all spoke English, and all represented churches whose relationship to the Church of England-if sometimes strained-was clear and easily defined. That relationship was articulated in the words of the Preface to the Episcopal Church's first Book of Common Prayer, written a century earlier after political independence for the United States had resulted in autonomy for the colonies' Anglican population: "[T]his Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship; or further than local circumstances require."2

Just over a century after that first Lambeth Conference, a decade ago Lambeth 1988 revealed the distances the Anglican Communion had travelled in a century. Vinay Samuel and Christopher Sugden, directors of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, documented some of the changes most sharply manifest for the first time at that Conference and speculated about their meaning in their book Lambeth: A View from the Two Thirds World.3 In 1988, representatives from China, India, Pakistan and Burma, absent for forty years, were present once again. But even more noteworthy was the fact that the number of African bishops had more than doubled in a ten-year period. Their number reflected both the ongoing process of de-colonization begun shortly after World War II and also the explosive growth of Anglicanism in many African countries. Less than two-thirds of the bishops present at Lambeth 1988 were white. Many did not speak English; and if they did, it was likely to be a second or third or fourth language, not the language of their birth.

Samuel and Sugden observed that in 1988, bishops whose first language was not English were alienated from both the worship and the process of debate and decision-making. But perhaps the most serious rifts within the Communion had to do with the nature of the Gospel proclaimed by the Church and the ways in which it interacts with the culture in which it is grounded. On the basis of their conversations with bishops from around the world, they warned in 1988 of the difficulties involved in maintaining communion among churches with radically different understandings of the nature of revelation, the authority of the scripture, the definition and place of tradition. "On the issue of the nature of communion," they wrote, "the bishops took away from Lambeth as many questions as answers."4

The underlying issue that raised its head dramatically at Lambeth 1988-unity in a Communion marked by diversity of many kindswas in fact the fundamental issue that defined the nature of the 1998 Lambeth Conference only recently concluded. Certainly both the church and secular press guaranteed that human sexuality, and especially homosexuality, would appear as the dominant topic over which the bishops struggled and disagreed; but I hope to show that in fact, this was more the "presenting symptom" of a condition already evident a decade ago but now an even more obvious (and challenging) fact of life for the Anglican Communion.

In the aftermath of Lambeth 1988, the organizers appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to plan the 1998 Conference determined to take the diversity of the Communion more seriously and to approach it as a positive reality rather than an accident of history to be regretted or ignored.

The issue of diversity was designated as one of the four primary themes for dialogue and consideration by the bishops at Lambeth in 1998. The nearly 800 bishops present in Canterbury were assigned by interest to one of four Conference Sections more or less equal in size. Under the rubric "Called to Be A Faithful Church In A Plural World," nearly two dozen topics were identified as urgent concerns for the bishops to address. …

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