Is there somewhere on earth where the Sunday afternoons are so interminably long that ones life would be more enhanced by reading in detail the Reflections on the Lambeth Conference 2008 than by, say, watching another re-run of The Great Escape or re-attempting a Sudoku puzzle? Perhaps there is, but for most of us life is too short for me to recommend the exercise.
What was the Lambeth Conference convened to achieve? The answer is: nothing. Remember, with the exception of the very first (and with interruptions for world wars), Lambeth Conferences have occurred decennially. They are held because it is time to hold one, not (essentially) because there is something that needs to be done which only a gathering of Anglican bishops from all the corners of the globe can achieve.
Thus, despite the acknowledgement within the Reflections document itself that the Anglican Communion is in crisis’, it was possible to organize this conference with the express intention of avoiding confronting the issue. Behind the scenes, of course, the intention was that by avoiding confrontation, a resolution of sorts could be approached, since keeping everyone together would further establish the status quo as de facto policy.
Publicly, the means to this end was a bastardized African import, the so-called indaba groups. These, one suspects, as much resembled the real thing as village-hall yoga does the Indian mystic tradition. Historically, an indaba is a meeting of Africans, not Anglican bishops, and brings with it the assumptions of African, not western liberal, culture, one of which is not ‘constantly avoiding confronting the issue’ (thus, from an old ANC Daily Briefing on the internet: ‘Sport and Recreation Minister Ngconde Balfour has called a one-day indaba to thrash out the problems plaguing professional boxing in South Africa’). The organizers of the Lambeth Conference adopted the term indaba because it sounded good, but used it for their own ends.
And now a Conference called for no particular reason, holding meetings designed to reach no particular conclusions, has produced not a report but a series of reflections.
Having decided to decide nothing, it appears that the Conference felt it must comment on everything. Thus the reader who is willing may wade through pages of good intentions about good causes ranging from disaster relief to carbon footprints. Yet, of course, nothing is (nor could be) specific; not even the Gospel which, it is claimed, lies at the heart of the Communion’s concept of mission. In reality, as we know, there is no shared concept of ‘Gospel’ across the Anglican Communion, and so in matters of religion specifically there can be no shared concept of ministry. (Indeed, I amused myself with the thought that the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, who addressed the Conference on the authority of Scripture, would have held that almost none of the delegates were gospel preachers’ in his own terms – certainly not Dr Rowan Williams, who has his own peculiar take on the topic.)
Moving beyond matters of doctrine, however, the Reflections unabashedly define the social mission of the Anglican Communion in terms of fulfilling the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. (Quite what would happen to the mission of the Church were these goals to be achieved does not seem to have crossed anyone’s mind).
But what about the elephant in the living room – the crisis in the Communion which prompted so many bishops not even to attend? Thanks to the process set up by the Conference organizers, the elephant is, of course, admired from every angle, but remember, there is no intention to remove it from the room. The last Lambeth Conference spoke clearly and concisely on the subject; yet we have been reminded by both words and deeds that such pronouncements have no binding force (despite the Conference being acknowledged as one of the instruments of the Communion, para. 136).
So no matter what the indaba groups may have shared or the Reflections may reflect, only the pathologically optimistic will suppose anything is going to deter the western churches from promoting and supporting the revisionist agenda. As many have noted, the dominant voice on campus, other than the bishops themselves, was that of the many pro-LGBT groups, not only in the market-place but via a daily ‘newspaper’.
What fewer seem yet to have noticed is that, as defined in the Reflections, one of the three ‘moratoria’ on actions currently ‘dividing’ the Communion would require sanctions against the Church of England itself, namely ‘Episcopal ordinations of partnered homosexual people’ [para. 131]. These are, of course, entirely permissible within the law of the land and the guidelines set out in the 2005 statement by the House of Bishops on Civil Partnerships: ‘The House of Bishops does not regard entering into a civil partnership [with someone of the same sex] as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders’ [para. 19]. True, the statement goes on to say that this is ‘provided the person concerned is willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality (i.e. is sexually celibate).’
However, the Reflections clearly need to be more careful on this issue at least. And in any case, the latitude exercised by some English bishops in refusing, as the Bishop of Chelmsford puts it, ‘to engage in intrusive behaviour into the private lives of their clergy’ means that the conditions of the moratoria are almost certainly being breached in the English Provinces.
In any case, we keep returning to the question of whether anything coming out of this Lambeth Conference can add to what has gone before or to what is currently in process. Remarks contained in the Reflections suggest anxieties about the Instruments of Communion, a lack of confidence in the Windsor Process, suspicion about the Covenant (specifically when it comes to any disciplinary process) and a determination that the proposed Pastoral Forum should be toothless – a ‘pastoral’ body without legal powers acting solely at the discretion of the Primate of the Province concerned.
One is reminded finally (and ironically) of Oscar Wilde’s dictum: ‘The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say’ Sadly, we may modify his final comment about the House of Commons to read: ‘the Lambeth Reflections has nothing to say and says it.’
–This article appears in the September 2008 edition of New Directions magazine, page 10