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Whither Lambeth? Anglicanism at the Crossroads
I request your presence at a meeting of the bishops in visible communion with the United Church of England and Ireland ... I propose that, at our assembling, we should first solemnly seek the blessing of Almighty God on our gathering, by uniting together in the highest act of the Church's worship. After this brotherly consultations will follow.... Such a meeting would not be competent to make declarations or lay down definitions on points of doctrine. But united worship and common counsels would greatly tend to maintain practically the unity of the faith; whilst they would bind us in straiter [sic] bonds of peace and brotherly charity.
—Charles Thomas Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury, from his letter inviting bishops to the first Lambeth Conference
"Brotherly Counsel and Encouragement"
The Lambeth Conference, a gathering of all the bishops of the Anglican Communion convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury, has met, except for those times impeded by World Wars, roughly every ten years since the middle of the nineteenth century. Named for Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop's London residence where the meetings were originally held, it has for some time outgrown that venue, and in recent decades has taken place at the University of Kent, outside of Canterbury. A collegial and non-legislative body, the Conference has afforded bishops in attendance the opportunity to discuss and pass resolutions on matters affecting the life of the Anglican Communion. It has also spoken on certain all- encompassing issues which affect the entire global community, and when it does, the Lambeth Conference is generally assumed to speak for the whole Anglican Communion, although it is, in fact, one of its four official advisory bodies, called "instruments of unity." The other three are the Anglican Consultative Council, whose membership is comprised of representatives, in most cases a bishop, a priest and a layperson from each province; the Primates, made up of the heads (an archbishop or presiding bishop) of each province; and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.
Historically, issues of theology, polity and liturgy have dominated the agenda. Because the Communion is made up of a number of autonomous churches, or provinces, in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, it has long been considered advisable for the church's mitered leaders to meet in council and, in principle, to affirm unity in their diversity. But more and more, the bishops of the Lambeth Conference, not content simply to promulgate abstract theological statements, have deemed it appropriate to exercise their pastoral office. With each successive conference, they have voiced their opinions on social issues, thus providing guidance for Anglicanism's faithful as to how they might carry out their apostolate in the world in which they move, breathe, live and have their being.
In other words, the bishops have attempted to provide a moral compass for Anglicans dispersed around the globe. As the Primate of Canada stated at the opening of the 1968 Conference, "At its best, Lambeth sends forth a fresh, spontaneous response to the problems facing the Church and the world. Its words are not the Church's final decrees, but messages from the pilgrim Church sent out as she journeys." In 1948, for example, Lambeth addressed the issue of racism, stating that "discrimination between men on the grounds of race alone is inconsistent with the principles of Christian religion." Ten years later, the Conference promulgated an historic (and controversial) document endorsing the responsible use of birth control. The tenth Lambeth Conference, which took place in the year of the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, decried the fact that resorting to violence and bloodshed had become commonplace. Stating that "the Kingdom of God is often advanced by revolutionary change following on a change of heart," the Conference resolved that the Christian Church "must be ready to support individual Christians as they search for justice even by means which sometimes seem extreme, for example, civil disobedience."
Increasingly, the Conference has weighed in on global matters, and in its resolutions has both shared with the world its positions on them and has encouraged appropriate groups to take the necessary action to redress the issues in question. It is especially germane to our discussion to point out that the Lambeth bishops, at their 1988 meeting, declared that "the system of apartheid in South Africa is evil and especially repugnant because of the cruel way a tyrannical racist system is being upheld in the name of the Christian faith," and called upon the churches to bring pressure to bear on the South African regime to promote a genuine process of change toward a democratic political structure.
At its most recent gathering, in 1998, the Lambeth Conference decried the fact that the two-thirds world is mired in debt. The assembled bishops called upon both the industrialized nations and the international banking community to consider ways to alleviate or even forgive that debt. Indeed, the Archbishop of Cape Town was one of the staunchest advocates of such a strategy. "We live in a world," he stated, "in which money has more powerful rights than human rights, a world governed and dominated by Mammon. Only amongst our faith communities does there seem to be any will to challenge Mammon."
A Missed Opportunity
In 2008, for the first time in its history, the Lambeth Conference was scheduled to meet outside of England, indeed some six thousand miles to the south of London. At the invitation of Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, Primate of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, the Lambeth Conference was to take place in Cape Town. Plans for the Conference, which was to be held in conjunction with an Anglican Gathering to which priests and laypeople were also to have been invited, were moving apace, but on 28 June 2004, Sue Parks, the 2008 Lambeth Conference administrator, along with Lambeth Conference design group members Bishop James Tengatenga of Southern Malawi and Fung Yi Wong of Hong Kong, announced that a shortage of funding led to the cancellation of the joint event and to a change in venue for the Conference itself. "Certain uncertainties contributed to the lack of confidence to raise the funds for 2008," Ms. Wong said. Ndungane, in expressing his disappointment, stated that since funding at the level of ten million dollars could not be guaranteed, "it would be impossible for us to host such a big undertaking."
The design group for the Lambeth Conference were cognizant of the fact that Cape Town would be a far more expensive venue than the campus of the University of Kent, and for this reason, had sought extraordinary funding, reportedly from foundations and individuals, which did not materialize to the extent necessary. It should be pointed out, however, that well before fiscal problems manifested themselves, the Cape Town Lambeth Conference was threatened for other reasons. An article in the London Sunday Times, in fact, suggested that the change of venue was "the first big casualty of the church's schism over homosexuality." The newspaper attributed this to the concern among many Africans that the Conference should not be held in Africa, where the opposition to the ordination of a gay bishop was the strongest. Also, Africans were reportedly unhappy that the extraordinary costs of a Cape Town conference would be borne by Americans. Moreover, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, who had called the consecration of a gay bishop in the American Church a "Satanic attack" on the church, indicated that he might lead a boycott of the Lambeth Conference and that he would be joined by other African primates and many of the bishops in their respective provinces if it took place in South Africa, because South Africa's archbishop had repeatedly defended the Episcopal Church's actions on the grounds of its provincial autonomy.
In a church generally regarded as bound by tradition, the significance of this potential departure from tradition cannot be overstated. Cape Town, the oldest Anglican see on the continent of Africa, came into being in 1848 when Robert Gray was dispatched from England under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). (In a typical colonial decision, the Anglican community in Southern Africa had previously been under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Calcutta!) But the world's bishops had not planned to descend on Cape Town to commemorate the 160th anniversary of the official planting of Anglicanism in Africa. Nor would they have come, like the World Cup in 2010, to celebrate the coming of democracy to South Africa and the dismantling of apartheid. Rather, they were to convene in Cape Town primarily to recognize what may be called the coming of age of African Anglicanism, as evidenced by the demographic shift of the Communion to the Global South. As Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams commented, "New times require a new kind of Lambeth Conference."
Were it to take place in South Africa, the fourteenth Lambeth Conference would bear testimony to the reality that of the world's eighty million Anglicans, some forty million of them are members of churches in the twelve provinces in Africa, of whom more than ten million are said to be in Nigeria alone. These numbers exceed those of the traditional "sending churches" which have been long established strongholds of Anglicanism. There are 800,000 members of the Anglican Church of Canada and 2,300,000 in the Episcopal Church, USA. And although there are officially some twenty-six million Anglicans in Europe, mostly in the United Kingdom, it is largely assumed that these numbers are inflated because of the method of identifying who Anglicans are. By any reckoning, however, most Anglicans live in Africa, and most of the world's Anglican bishops are also Africans. Indeed the 1998 Lambeth Conference was the first at which the bishops representing the sending churches "were outnumbered by the bishops from the Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and Oceania."
This dramatic shift in Anglican demographics was an important factor in Archbishop Ndungane's suggestion that the Conference take place in his province. (As Provincial Executive Officer of the province, Ndungane, for similar reasons, had urged the Anglican Consultative Council to meet in South Africa. The ACC accepted his invitation, and he hosted them in Cape Town in 1993.) In his recent book, A World with a Human Face, he raises the question as to whether the Archbishop of Canterbury, as primus inter pares ("first among equals") should be the only primate who can convene the Lambeth Conference. He observes, too, that despite
the recognition that the balance of membership of our Communion has ... shifted hugely to the southern hemisphere, the vestiges of neo-colonialism and paternalism nonetheless remain enshrined in our Anglican institutions, and in our instruments of dialogue and unity. In this sense I would want us all to take a long look at the Lambeth Conference itself. ... Is it morally defensible, for instance, in a diverse, global context that representatives of our family should return to the perceived 'motherland' for the conference?
The fact that Lambeth XIV was to have been in Cape Town is recognition of a virtual sea change in Anglicanism. The exponential growth of the church in the two-thirds world is, arguably, an unforeseen consequence of British colonial expansion. As the Cross followed the Union Jack to the uttermost parts of the Empire on which the sun was said never to set, English missionaries brought the faith as the Anglican Church has received it to those whom Queen Victoria had made British subjects. The SPG, and its sister missionary organization, the more evangelical, "low church" Church Missionary Society (CMS), perceived that they had a mandate, therefore, to "fling out the banner" and to bring the Gospel, to use the words of Bishop Heber's missionary hymn, to "Africa's sunny fountains."
It is truly lamentable that in the opening decade of this new millennium the world's Anglican bishops will not meet in that corner of the globe where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans converge, for in so doing, they would have sent a message (regardless of whatever resolutions they would have passed at their gathering) that Anglicanism has irrevocably changed. For the shift in Anglican demographics does not simply mean that Anglicans are more broadly dispersed than before, or that there is now a heavier concentration of Anglicans in the southern hemisphere. It signals, among other things, that there are more Anglicans in the developing world than in the developed world, more poor Anglicans than rich, more black and brown Anglicans than white, more Anglicans who speak languages other than English than native English speakers. The shift means that the idea of Anglicans as "the Tory party at prayer" must be scrapped. It means that an Anglicanism thought to be the spiritual refuge of the privileged classes is no longer an accurate depiction. It means that images conjured up by "lord bishops" who live in palaces might now ring inappropriate if not offensive.
At an even deeper level, this unprecedented transformation of the makeup of the church means that the problems besetting the majority of the world's Anglicans are also different from those faced by Anglicans in such places as the United States, Canada and England. It means that some Anglicans in Northern Nigeria must daily live with the threat of persecution at the hands of their Muslim neighbors. It means that Anglican churches in such places as Uganda and South Africa have learned to break the silence around the HIV-AIDS pandemic, setting up special agencies in their provinces and dioceses to minister to those infected and affected by the AIDS virus and that "AIDS orphanage" has entered the church's lexicon. It means that for the bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, the tsunami is a disaster that has come literally to his doorstep, and is not some horrific event half a world away.
"Overseas from Where?" Paradigm Shifts in Global Anglicanism
The further significance of this phenomenon is that, as an Anglican theologian from Hong Kong has observed, "since the Anglican Communion was formed as a direct result of colonization, it is imperative for Anglicans to face the challenges of postcolonial realities." This means that the idea of a church with its headquarters on the banks of the Thames whose outposts dot the globe is an antiquated concept. It is illustrated by the story of an African-American bishop who was in London in 1985 for the consecration of Wilfred Wood, a native of Barbados, as bishop of Croydon. In the vestry of St. Paul's Cathedral, an English bishop approached the black American and asked if he were an "overseas bishop," to which the visiting bishop replied, "Overseas from where?"
If we examine this seemingly innocuous interchange more fully, we see that it is multi-layered. I am indebted to Kortright Davis for providing us with a paradigm for helping us to identify those layers in such a way that we can more fully understand the challenges faced by Anglicanism in the twenty-first century. Professor Davis identifies what he calls "the five cultures of the millennium," namely self-determination, whiteness, technology, materialism and dominance. Davis maintains that the last thousand years has been a story of cultures, often clashing and conflicting, vying for dominance on the world stage. Peoples in every clime, driven by "a struggle for unconditional freedom and rugged individualism," have fought for their rights. Despite "the rise and fall of Afrikaner politics in South Africa" with its "horrible apartheid poison" and other victories, however pyrrhic, of people of color in other places, white racism, according to Davis, is alive and well. The message of the culture of dominance has been that "there are those destined to be in charge and those who are destined to be ruled and governed by others." I believe that at the heart of the issues with which the Anglican Communion is grappling today is a paradigm shift of major proportions, in which the assumptions that power and authority should be in the hands of the "mother church" and her "cousins" in the developed world have been challenged by people of color in the developing world. Such persons, moreover, bring to the table world views born of their cultures and which on their face are at variance with the historically dominant culture. Anglicanism is currently in the throes of sorting this all out.
Excerpted from A Church for the Future by Harold T. Lewis. Copyright © 2007 Harold T. Lewis. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Chapter I Whither Lambeth? Anglicanism at the Crossroads
Chapter II John William Colenso: Anglicanism's Unwitting Architect
Chapter III A Glimpse of the Heavenly Jerusalem: Anglo-Catholicism and
Social Witness in the CPSA
Chapter IV From Paternalism to Activism: The South African Church and
Chapter V Mixing Politics and Religion: The Prophetic Ministry of Desmond
Chapter VI A Prophet Without Honor? The Visionary Ministry of Njongonkulu
Winston Hugh Ndungane
Chapter VII An Iconic Issue: Human Sexuality and the CPSA
Chapter VIII "There Is Always Something New Coming out of Africa": South
Africa as the Crucible of the Communion