Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Lambeth 1998 and the Future Mission of the Episcopal Church

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Lambeth 1998 and the Future Mission of the Episcopal Church

Article excerpt

Historically, the Lambeth Conferences have been a great Christian event in whose discussions believers of every persuasion have taken an interest and in whose actions members of other churches have found evidence of the good which the Spirit has wrought. Since 1867, occasionally the Conferences have marked tectonic shifts in the larger Christian landscape, as well as in the Anglican landscape, worthy of the attention of the whole of Christendom.

In 1888, the so-called Lambeth Quadrilateral provided a fourpart statement of the basic elements of Anglicanism which had emerged as key parts of the fusion into one whole of the Evangelical Revival, the Catholic Revival, and the Broad Church Movement in the Anglican Communion of the nineteenth century. The 1920 Lambeth Conference issued an "Appeal for Reunion to all Christian People" which became one of the great landmarks of the twentieth-century ecumenical movement. The 1958 Conference absorbed twentieth-century science and the historical criticism of Holy Scripture without turning its back on the main channel of the Christian tradition. So also, the Lambeth Conferences absorbed the novelties of the 1960s and the 1970s without forfeiting the Anglican concern for the historic ministries of the Church.

Though Anglicanism has been marked by a congenital, though creative, conservatism, the attitude of Anglicans to our past has never been one of uncritical acceptance of the whole of our experience. The contours of our Christian present are always being formed insofar as we are constantly testing our present positions against past traditions.

The function of the Lambeth Conference has been to perform such a testing function: to receive and appropriate tradition by expanding our horizon of the present by fusing it with the horizon of the past. In the Lambeth Conference fusion of past and present, both change.

And with that change, our Communion moves into a living tradition which recognizes the presence of the Spirit in the present as well as in the past and which also charts the course of the future. Though the Lambeth Conference resolutions are not binding on our individual national churches, we as Anglicans believe that the Conference is one of the places where the Spirit defines the contour of our future, in convenient ten-year intervals.

What is the definition of the future which emerges from this Conference of 1998? For the first time since the Lambeth Conferences began one hundred and thirty-one years ago, the bishops who are heads of dioceses in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the United States, and the Anglican Churches of Canada and Australia, those nations that historically sent missionaries abroad, were outnumbered by the bishops from the Anglican churches of Africa, Asia, and Oceania, areas to which so many of these missionaries were sent.

As late as 1978 a majority of the world's Anglican population lived in Britain, but today the British constitute about 35% of seventy-three million Anglicans worldwide. Anglicans number approximately 31.6 million in Africa and 6.1 million in Asia. By contrast, the Church of England estimates its current membership at 26 million and the Episcopal Church in the U.S. at 2.6 million, and representation at the 1998 Lambeth Conference reflected these facts. The Tanzanian Church sent bishops from twelve dioceses in 1988; it now has sixteen dioceses.

Ten years ago, the Church of the Province of Nigeria had twenty-six dioceses; now it has sixty-one. In 1988 Africa had one hundred and thirty dioceses at the Conference; in 1998 it had two hundred and twenty-eight. Such growth is a major trend within world Christianity, and it is reflected in many denominations. For example, African Lutherans increased from 5.7 million to nine million since 1991, surpassing the total membership of all Lutherans in North America. Lambeth 1998 gives us a hint of what these numbers may mean for future theological, liturgical, and spiritual patterns in world Christianity. …

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