The Lambeth Conference: theology, history, polity and purpose

[A review forthcoming in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church.]

Paul Avis and Benjamin M. Guyer (eds)
The Lambeth Conference. Theology, history, polity and purpose
London: Bloomsbury/ T & T Clark, 2017
xxi + 437

This year sees the latest instance of the Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of the bishops of the Anglican Communion. The singular designation is important, as the editors of this timely volume note: to speak of the Lambeth Conference as a continually existing thing, rather than a sequence of conferences, is to say something particular about its status as one of the four Instruments of Communion which hold the Communion together. First convened in 1867, the Conference has a status without any exact parallel in world Christianity. In common with the other three Instruments, it possesses none of the kind of coercive force that can be exercised from the Vatican; if push comes to shove, any of the provinces of the Anglican Communion may disregard resolutions of the Conference, and the consequences of doing so are not clearly defined. In this sense, each province retains a kind of sovereignty, and it remains an act of the will to continue to recognise the rest of the Communion and to subject one’s own decision-making to it. Yet the Conference, together with the three other Instruments, makes – or has had made on its behalf – more far-reaching ecclesiological claims that is common in relation to the Lutheran World Federation or the World Methodist Council. It is with the nature of these claims, and their gradual emergence since 1867 that many, if not all, of the essays presented here are concerned, to different degrees.

The volume is a timely one for a number of reasons. Published to mark 150 years since the first conference, it also appears four decades since the last substantial study of the Lambeth Conference, during which time scholarship has moved far. But the division within the Communion over matters of sexuality, and its impact on the tumultuous 2008 Conference in particular, has made plain the limitations of the Instruments as means of resolving conflict. As Gregory K. Cameron shows, the attempt to address this sense of ecclesial deficit by means of the Anglican Covenant ran into the sand, and few seem to be rushing to help haul it back onto the road. Yet several contributors argue, more or less strongly, that some more effective means of first brokering agreement and then ensuring that such agreement is acted upon – or that the refusal to do so is somehow consequential – will need to be found if the Anglican Communion is to hold together. This volume does not provide the answers, but its treatment of the nature of the questions that need to be asked will be essential reading for those charged with finding those answers.

As is to be expected with all volumes such as this, the contributors take a wide variety of approaches. Some range rather further than others from the Lambeth Conference in particular, and are more directed to the specific issues that are the source of the current division. There are valuable contributions from historians, notably Benjamin M. Guyer on the inaugural Conference of 1867, and Mark D. Chapman on William Reed Huntington. Jeremy Morris shows that the Conference emerged in the context of, and has continued to be shaped by, changing perceptions of the nature of the office of a bishop. Both Mary Tanner and Donald Bolen (Roman Catholic bishop and ecumenist) highlight the ecumenical significance of the Conference. Others concentrate on process: Charlotte Methuen examines the making of the 1920 ‘Appeal to All Christian People’; Andrew Goddard looks at successive Conference resolutions on issues of sex and marriage as a means by which to understand the patterns into which these deliberations have fallen; Alyson Barnett-Cowan explores in detail the contrasting approaches to structuring the work of the Conference in 1998 and in 2008. There is much more room left for detailed historical work on past conferences – their specific historical contexts, the means by which their agendas were set, and the conduct of business – as relatively few of the essays here penetrate very deeply into the archival record, focussing instead on the printed sources which represent the end of a process and which tend to hide the means of reaching it. The editors express an aspiration that the volume be a spur to further research, and so it may be, at least for historians.

Others address the constitutional, legal and ecclesiological issues more directly. Norman Doe and Richard Deadman examine the impact of Conference resolutions on the law of individual provinces: effects that bear familial resemblances when examined as a whole, but all of them ultimately on the basis of consent. Paul Avis traces the historic relationship between the Conference and the archbishop of Canterbury – the office of whom is recognised as another of the Instruments – as both the instigator of the first Conference, and the host and president of each meeting since. And it is the chapter from Stephen Pickard that addresses the specific issue of ecclesiology most directly. Is it possible to cultivate an attitude of ‘sympathetic imagination’ towards the Instruments, a shared commitment to them as gifts and as signs of grace? While based on an elevated understanding of the episcopate, such an understanding can, Pickard suggests, accommodate the contingent and thus mutable nature of the Instruments whilst still being able to avoid mere pragmatism and resist the manoeuvring of particular interests at a point in time. The question, then, is whether the Anglican Communion can find a set of Instruments in which all can invest and continue to steward as both it and they change. This valuable volume, well produced and reasonably priced, provides a starting point for that thinking.