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LAMBETH 2008 ... Was it Worth it?

LAMBETH 2008 ... Was it Worth it?
A final reflection on the Lambeth Conference 2008

by Fr Warren Tanghe
Aug 3, 2008

Bishops of the Anglican Communion gathered on the campus of the University of Kent at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury on July 16th for the once-every-ten-years Lambeth Conference.

During their first half-week together, they worshipped, ate, and studied Scripture together, and met in the Cathedral Church of Christ in Canterbury to hear the Archbishop's retreat addresses. The pace was relaxed: old friends reconnected and new acquaintances were begun, as the bishops were invited to look beyond themselves and what they were about, to the presence and power of the living God.

The Conference proper began with the official opening service in the Cathedral on Sunday, the 20th. The bishops started meeting in indaba groups, in a process meant to foster open and honest speaking and respectful and attentive listening on a daily topic, in which every bishop's voice would be heard. These groups were complemented by Self-Select Sessions, which offered presentations and opportunities for discussion on specific aspects of these topics. Noted speakers presented plenary addresses on evangelisation, mission, the ecological crisis, and covenant.

During the week of the 20th, the Conference topics were general: Anglican identity, evangelism, social justice, ecumenism, and the environment. The week was broken by the London Day, which included not only the traditional tea party at Buckingham Palace, but also a march of witness to encourage governments to honor their promise to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

The final week of the Conference turned to more specific and immediate topics: interfaith relations, the authority and interpretation of Scripture, human sexuality, the Anglican Covenant and the Windsor process. During the week hearings were held to offer a chance for the bishops' input on the draft Covenant and some observations offered by the Windsor group, and on the Reflections document which will summarize what was said and heard at Lambeth 2008.

Sense of Exhaustion

I write on the Conference's final day. There is a sense of exhaustion here, and a sense of frustration.

The Communion is in crisis. Its life and mission have been disrupted, both by the actions of its North American provinces and their effect in other provinces, and by the amount of time and energy which have been devoted to dealing with the resulting crisis, without success.

Indeed, this lack of progress has itself deepened the crisis, as provinces express frustration with the impotence of the Communion's structures and leadership, the apparent failure of leaders and provinces to carry out decisions that seemed to have been agreed, and, at bottom, the sense that the Communion is no longer bound by its historic common understanding, its Reformed Catholic understanding, of the Faith. As a result, the bishops of Uganda, Nigeria and Rwanda, as well as those serving the Diocese of Sydney in Australia and many individual bishops, decided to absent themselves from the Conference.

No one seems to be sure exactly how many bishops are here. The press have a list only of the last names and dioceses of those who wished to make their presence known. Bishops complain that they cannot locate other bishops, because (in contrast to earlier Conferences) they too have no list. The Conference's official press spokesman puts the number of participants at about 650.

Neither does anyone seem sure exactly what is going on in the Conference as a whole. The press have been excluded from most sessions in order to ensure that the bishops can speak freely to one another, and be more free to alter their opinions, without fear of their words being posted to the world, and that is surely right. But the bishops themselves are segmented: they have had little structured opportunity to interact with people outside their 40-member indaba groups, apart from the hearings on specific proposals. As a result, they have little sense of the overall tenor of the Conference, much less, of where it is going. And if the draft of the Reflections document is any measure, it will do little to provide such a sense; the draft is more a summary of ideas and possibilities regarding the various topics, than a synthesis that articulates Lambeth's vision for the identity and direction of the Communion.

Bishops on very different sides of the contentious issues have expressed a real sense of being manipulated and controlled; and though the indaba process has been enjoyed by many, there is a common feeling that it has been used to exclude the members of the Conference from the final decision-making.

The Present Crisis

The "observations" which have been offered to resolve the present crisis in the Communion - understandably, given the working group's brief - ring changes on earlier proposals which proved unsuccessful, largely because the provinces to which they were addressed rejected them. While the bishops have been able to speak to these observations in the hearings, they will take no decisions on them. Likewise, they will take no decisions regarding the present draft of the Anglican Covenant, which is meant to provide an agreed understanding of the nature of the Communion and how it operates, so as to provide a means of dealing with conflicts which may arise in the future. The groups will take back what they have heard, a eventually report to other "instruments of unity".

And even those who have made official presentations to the press on the Anglican Covenant acknowledge the likelihood that some provinces will not sign on to it, and the resulting question of what sort of standing or relationship they will have.

A Communion in Crisis

The Communion is in crisis, and one must fear that the crisis will continue unresolved when this Conference is adjourned. Indeed, it may grow worse. As those who have absented themselves and those present who largely agree with their concerns give up on the Communion's ability to address it, and without formally leaving it or dividing it, proceed to act independently of it. If the list of doctrinal foundations presented in GAFCON's Jerusalem Statement has been taken up, much less taken seriously, in the discussions on the Anglican Identity section of the draft Covenant, noone has mentioned it to the press.

It is worthwhile to meet face-to-face with one another, and especially with those with whose ideas and actions one disagrees. It is worthwhile to hear them, to understand why they think and act as they do, and to discover such common ground as one may have with them. And it seems that the Lambeth Conference 2008 and its indaba process have done all that. There has been a shift in the way the bishops regard one another, and some say that the sense of communion seems to have been renewed. But still, that does nothing to resolve the crisis. It remains, and at best Lambeth has bought more time. Yet it is the temporizing, the talking without fruit, the pointing to the next meeting and the next, that have left those who have absented themselves from Lambeth and many who are here increasingly alienated from the Communion.

A Justifiable Cost?

The Lambeth Conference is costly. None of its official spokespersons has been able (or willing?) to say how much it is costing, or how large a deficit it is running. But it is running a deficit, and the word is that it is substantial. One must ask: does what this Lambeth Conference has achieved for the good of the Anglican Communion justify that expenditure? Or might the money have been used better if it had been given to the Global South, for distribution where it would most benefit the poorest churches and peoples?

Your correspondent writes from the perspective of what Archbishop Rowan Williams calls a "traditionalist". He would not wish to undervalue the intangible results of this gathering: the relationships and networks developed here are part of and clearly strengthen the communion, the koinonia of the Church. But having said this, to this traditionalist Lambeth does not seem to have accomplished much of what was needed from it.

I will return to the United States and The Episcopal Church with no sense that anything much in the situation there has changed or been resolved, that the disintegration of that church and of the Communion will continue and that the Communion remains unable (or lacking in the will) to deal with it - and most of all, still wondering if, as a Catholic Anglican, I can live with integrity under its big tent.


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