It's good to talkTheo Hobson
- 12 July 2008
The average family gathering relies on certain truths being left unspoken, carefully skirted around. As the bishops and their spouses travel to Canterbury for this decade's Lambeth Conference, which begins on Wednesday, they resemble members of a large family congregating for a wedding. All are uneasily aware that at the last such event something went wrong: things were said that should not have been said, and a row ignited that has resulted in one branch of the family staying away. Should they try to return to the old friendly atmosphere, or has a new spirit of brutal honesty made that impossible?
Until recently, few British Anglicans gave much thought to the Lambeth Conference, which (in theory) brings all Anglican bishops together once a decade. It was a reminder that Anglicanism was thriving in the colonies and former colonies. It was an insight into the exotic issues that faced native evangelists in sunnier climes. It was a way of discovering what help they needed in spreading Canterbury's light through the globe.
At the height of decolonisation, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Lambeth Conference carried a positive message: here is a form of international fellowship that outlives political empire, that is entirely voluntary. But in practice global Anglicanism remained very largely white-run: for example there were no black South African bishops. In 1968 the conference was overshadowed by the Second Vatican Council and also by the World Council of Churches, confirming a sense that global Anglicanism was rather old hat.
The tone of these conferences was gently reformist: in 1958 artificial contraception was agreed to be permissible and racism was denounced; in 1968 the ordination of women was gently mooted, and reunion with the Methodists discussed. Then a few provinces started ordaining women - would this cause a crisis? No: the conference of 1978 agreed that each province was free to make up its own mind on the issue. Robert Runcie brought a new seriousness to the event in 1988, and ensured that a higher proportion of bishops from the developing world were able to attend - they now formed the majority. The imperial spirit was finally being seriously challenged. But the same spirit of conciliation persisted in 1988: it was decided that differences over women bishops should be lived with.
For 130 years, since it began, the Lambeth Conference managed to promote unity and defuse potential crises. It knew its place: to discuss the various concerns of global Anglicanism and to pass resolutions that were carefully framed to be generally agreeable. And throughout this time, of course, the authority of the centre was unquestionable. It was unimaginable that the authority of the English bishops might be challenged by a foreign agenda. The point of the Lambeth Conference was to promote gradual reform, and to strengthen the "bonds of unity" - and not to define orthodoxy in a way that might cause dissent.
And then, in 1998, the meaning of this whole event changed, due to the way in which one particular resolution was framed. It's hard to say whether this happened accidentally, or whether the change was cunningly engineered.
The issue of homosexuality had been kept at arm's length for 20 years. In 1978 the conference had recognised the "need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality"; in 1988 the warm sentiment was repeated. In 1998 it was again repeated, in the famous Resolution 1:10, with the emphasis on "listening" to homosexuals' concerns, but it was now accompanied by a firm declaration that homosexual practice was "incompatible with Scripture". This clause changed the nature of the resolution, which was intended to be vague and conciliatory - an acknowledgement that opinions differed on the issue, but communion should not be broken.
It was supposed to be a classic piece of Anglican fudge. But it was hijacked by a lobby of bishops from the developing world, which had formed in the mid-1990s, resolving to contest Anglicanism's drift to the condoning of homosexuality. This lobby influenced the final framing of Resolution 1:10, making it an assertion of orthodoxy.
But what sort of authority do Lambeth resolutions have? There is no structure for their enforcement, but they might nevertheless attain an aura of authority. This is what happened with Resolution 1:10. It helped to authorise the huge expansion of the conservative evangelical lobby, and to embolden its stand against the election in 2003 of the actively gay Gene Robinson as a bishop in the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. This led to a flurry of Anglican activity, and a new will to define Anglican orthodoxy. Various Primates Meetings have reaffirmed Lambeth 1:10; it has become a key marker of orthodoxy.
This month's Lambeth Conference has made one resolution in advance: not to make any resolutions. Such a disavowal of resolutions was part of the reason for disaffected Anglicans to set up the Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon), held earlier this month in Jerusalem. Some of these members of the Anglican family will stay away from the gathering in Canterbury.
I asked Dr Kevin Ward, author of A History of Global Anglicanism, whether this lack of resolutions will make it feel different from previous conferences. "The Gafcon people weren't happy with Rowan Williams' intention to move away from resolutions, to make Lambeth a toothless tiger," said Dr Ward. "They wanted more clarity, particularly in disciplining the Americans. In their view, it's irresponsible just to have a huge talking shop when this is going on. And they also wonder what the point of Lambeth resolutions is, if they're not properly enforced." But not all the conservative evangelicals are boycotting, so could there still be a lobby pressing for greater clarity? "There could be," agreed Dr Ward. "For example the Sudanese and Tanzanian bishops will be there, and plenty of other African bishops, so there might be a group demanding a resolution condemning the American Church. But the whole point of how the conference is structured is to avoid that sort of thing. The emphasis is on small groups - the model is the indaba - the Zulu council meetings, in which everyone gets heard."
How fully and honestly should homosexuality be discussed by the official programme? It's a dilemma. There is a danger of seeming to sweep the issue under the carpet, and a counter-danger of elevating it to such importance that new rows break out and other pressing issues are not given proper attention.
Few people have pondered this dilemma more extensively over the last few years than Canon Philip Groves. He is the Facilitator of the Listening Process on Human Sexuality in the Anglican Communion. This job originates in the less contentious part of Resolution 1:10: "We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons." Groves is particularly good at listening to African concerns, having spent seven years in Tanzania, during which time he got to know many African bishops. He is helping to run the part of the conference set aside for the gay issue. The day is called "Listening to God and to Each Other". At first Groves is wary of being questioned about this, for fear of seeming to have an agenda, of wanting to skew the discussion in a certain way.
"The purpose of the day is to reflect on the listening process that's been going on since the last conference," he tells me. "And of course it has to keep going on - there can be no end to listening, it's a vital part of mission."
He must have taken great care to structure the event in a neutral way? "Well, balance is impossible - the key thing is not balance but diversity." Has he encountered opposition from some bishops, who think that "listening to homosexuals" conceals a liberal agenda? "Yes, of course many are wary of talking about this, but we haven't had any opposition on the methodology from the Primates. But let's be honest: this is a delicate area and open discussion of it is deeply alienating for half, or maybe three-quarters, of the provinces." Given the current importance of the issue, shouldn't the conference devote more time to it? "No, partly because that would be off-putting to a lot of the bishops and partly because there are many other important things to discuss like HIV-Aids, and globalisation and climate change."
All the fuss over the Gafcon split, and the blow to Williams' authority, might lead one to assume that a dark cloud of pessimism hangs over this conference. But most of those involved are convincingly upbeat, and Groves is a good example.
"Essentially this isn't about church politics," he said., "It's about less formal relationships - it's about trying to move to a less formal expression of Church. And you've got to remember that a lot of bishops are very isolated - they need to have contact with each other. Of course it's a huge effort and it all costs a fortune, but look at the New Testament - Paul and others make costly journeys, in order to share the Gospel with each other, and it's worth all the time and expense."