Before the 2008 Lambeth Conference begins, it’s well worth recalling why the 1998 version proved so controversial. Many readers will remember the pictures on every front page of Richard Kirker, the homosexual activist, being ”˜exorcised’ by Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma of Nigeria ”” a moment which it seems for many captured the ”˜agony’ and ”˜shame’ of the whole ”˜debacle’.
However there was more than enough shame and blame to go round on all sides. Bishops in 1997 and 1998 in the run-up to the conference were universally agreed that the subject of homosexuality should not dominate proceedings. These comments were reflected in all the regional meetings which were organised as ways of prioritising what should be part of discussions. I spoke to large numbers of bishops around the world before the conference and they were determined that what they saw as largely an American issue should not be forced down their throats.
So what happened? Well, the tone was set by Bishop John Spong who sent out a ”˜White Paper’ to all Anglican bishops worldwide slamming ”˜pre-scientific’ attitudes to homosexuality, and lambasting the leaders of the Communion, reserving particular vitriol for the statement of the Kuala Lumpur ”˜South-to-South’ event. He compounded this with a pre-Lambeth interview with me, in which he kept returning to the theme of how the American Church (so prophetic in its search for social justice) was not going to be dictated to by people who were barely one-step removed from animism. It did not help that he had just released a book ”˜Why Christianity must change or die’, and 12 so-called ”˜Theses’ which ditched the central tenets of Christianity itself.
He was not to play a large part in the subsequent conference himself, but his words caused great hurt and consternation and provoked an inevitable reaction. Then there were the jibes repeated increasingly throughout the Lambeth Conference that African bishops were being ”˜bought’ by chicken dinners laid on by rich American conservatives.
Years, if not centuries, of being patronised by the Europeans and Americans it seemed were coming to a head just at a point where Anglicans in Africa and throughout the developing world were organising and meeting together against a background of extraordinary church growth and new-found confidence.
So is there any truth to allegations that the Africans were somehow ”˜bought’, or manipulated by American conservatives? There’s no more truth in this than in suggesting that their hitherto, relative silence in the communion had been bought by the largely liberal leadership of the US Church in previous times. There is something distasteful (if not racist) about suggesting that the whole class of leadership in particular countries is somehow particularly susceptible to bribery or manipulation. But the question is whether money changed hands?
Of course, it did. Masses of money changed hands. Most of it on the quiet. I heard that bishops were helped with spending money while they were in England. Spouses were bought children’s shoes for when they returned to poverty-stricken situations like Southern Sudan, and many people offered kindnesses to each other throughout the duration of the Lambeth Conference. Such charitable and friendly giving face-to-face should be a private matter. It is true, in addition, that the Bishop of Dallas, Jim Stanton, head of the American Anglican Council at the time, took over a headquarters at the Franciscan Studies Centre on the campus where he aimed to help bishops from the two-thirds world gather in friendship, have access to fax machines, photocopying, phones, meeting rooms and computers. These sorts of facilities could not be offered effectively by the official organisers, and at previous conferences, many bishops were unable to be in contact with dioceses and family back home. Interestingly, rooms at the Franciscan Studies Centre also hosted the special sub-section of the conference devoted to homosexuality, when the official venue proved unsuitable.
So was there any bribery? Clearly not. But did American conservatives help to organise the voices of bishops from the two-thirds world? Undoubtedly so. Was there anything sinister about this? I’ve never thought so.
This sort of effective organisation outside the official structures of the conference is unlikely to happen at this summer’s conference. American conservatives have fragmented into various groupings such as Anglican Mission in America, the Anglican Network, CANA and other acronyms and for the most part are reserving their energies for the so-called GAFCON meeting in Jordan and Israel before Lambeth. However, there will continue to be lobby groups of every description at the Lambeth Conference. The conservatives will be less of a formidable force this time, but under the auspices of the Inclusive Church network, liberal Anglican ”˜lobbyists’ are determined to influence proceedings just as effectively as their counterparts did 10 years ago.
In the wake of growing ”˜green’ awareness, the 2008 Lambeth Conference, even in its current depleted form, may be the last big Anglican jamboree ever. It’s more likely that smaller regional meetings become the norm for the future, especially in the light of the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury is trying to pare down his flying to a bare minimum. In early May on his visit to Rome for the seventh Building Bridges Seminar and a private audience with the Pope, he travelled more than 1,000 miles by train.
The Times ”˜People’ column (Rowan on the rails, May 1 2008) mischievously suggests that while most of the year will be flight-free for the Archbishop, the result is likely to be greater scrutiny of whether his plans mean that more clerics have to travel by plane to meet him.
–This article appeared in the Church of England Newspaper, May 9, 2008 edition on page 14