To Make Room for the Spirit to Work: Reflections from Lambeth Conferences on Theological Education

By Robertson, C. K. | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

To Make Room for the Spirit to Work: Reflections from Lambeth Conferences on Theological Education


Robertson, C. K., Anglican Theological Review


As the agenda was being formed for the Spring 2008 meeting of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, the planning team considered various potential topics. Certain areas of focus rose to the forefront, particularly in light of the 2008 Lambeth Conference. These included reconciliation training, communication and media interfacing, the history and context of Lambeth-and theological education. This last area was a follow-up to an earlier presentation to the House in 2007 by members of the council of Episcopal seminary deans, and there is further discussion between the bishops and deans planned for 2009.

Why focus on theological education when there is arguably a long list of things that can be examined (and debated) at this juncture in the life of the church?

The answer is that the long-term health and vitality of the Episcopal Church depend in large part on taking seriously the preparation and ongoing support of our clergy and lay leaders. Theological education is a significant part of that preparation and support. In acknowledging this fact through their agendas, both the seminary deans and the House of Bishops planning team are following in the footsteps of past leaders of our own church as well as the worldwide Anglican Communion. In this year of the decennial Lambeth Conference, when the Communion and our place in it are so much in the minds of many Episcopalians, it seems appropriate to examine anew the deliberations and resolutions of previous Lambeth Conferences concerning theological education, and perhaps gain a clearer understanding of the role and needs of such education in our own time and context.

Recurring Questions

It is an often repeated fact that Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Thomas Longley convened the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 in response to the express petition of Canadian bishops. From the start, the Archbishop made it clear that this was not to be a legislative synod or parliament, but instead a fellowship of bishops who would "consider together many practical questions" and "increase intercommunion among ourselves."1 Indeed, as reiterated at the opening of the conference, "it has never been contemplated that we should assume the functions of a general synod ... and take upon ourselves to enact canons that should be binding upon those here represented." Rather, any resolutions that might emerge from that and subsequent conferences would be "safe guides to future action."2 Longleys successor, Archbishop Archibald Tait, further clarified this understanding of the purpose of the Lambeth Conference before convening the second gathering in 1878, reminding all invited bishops that "there is no intention whatever on the part of anybody to gather together the Bishops of the Anglican Church for the sake of defining any matter of doctrine."3 Those earliest conferences focused largely on issues of increased unity between member churches, cooperation in missionary activity and chaplaincies, and possible intercommunion with various non-Anglican churches-all themes that have recurred in subsequent conferences. The first mention of theological education, however, did not occur until the fourth Lambeth Conference in 1897. This conference commemorated the thirteenth centenary of the coming of St. Augustine of Canterbury to England and outlined in clear terms the organization of the Anglican Communion. Within this dual context of celebration and systemization, a single resolution turned the spotlight on "degrees in divinity." The specifics of that resolution reveal a dilemma existing in 1897 that remains with us to this day.

This Conference is of the opinion that, failing any consent on the part of existing authorities to grant degrees or certificates in divinity without requiring residence, and under suitable conditions, to residents in the colonies and elsewhere, it is desirable that a board of examinations in divinity, under the archbishops and bishops of the Anglican Communion, should be established, with power to hold local examinations, and confer titles and grant certificates for proficiency in theological study. …

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