It is easy to wonder why we bother with the Olympic Games. Especially as drug scandals mount and novel(ty) sports are included on the program. The round of world championships typically host more events and are a better funnel for the world’s best talent than the Olympics. Yet there is something about the Olympics that galvanizes attention and retains its significance. In some ways the coming Lambeth Conference can be viewed in the same light. Why have Lambeth at all when we have our own national or diocesan bodies with clear goals and greater capacity to make binding decisions? Yet, the Lambeth Conference lives on. Like the Olympics there is something in the gathering that is significant even if the significance is difficult to pin down.
One key to unlocking the potential significance of the coming Lambeth Conference is found in its its birth. The first Lambeth Conference arose in response to two crises. The crises were both prompted by the inaugural Bishop of Natal (John Colenso). One regarded his approach to reading Scripture, the other was to do with his determination to baptise polygamous men. On my reading this could be characterized as two aspects of a familiar story: how to truly understand God’s intention for his people (a hermeneutical question), and how to recognise the church in new or unfamiliar territory (a missiological question). It is not surprising that Bishop Colenso provoked strong reaction as people sought to determine what should be done. In discovering that bishops and councils could not simply coerce Bishop Colenso to do or not do something an appeal was made to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Charles Thomas Longley) to intervene and sort it out.
Here we encounter the key to unlock Lambeth’s significance. Archbishop Longley was clear in his own mind that he too did not have the power: either personally or via the various bodies within which he played a leading role, to prevent Bishop Colenso from ministering. So he decided to call a conference at which the bishops of churches for whom their foundation was associated with the church in England1 could discuss their approach to exercising the relational influence they shared through their common ordination and office. From the beginning the key to the Lambeth Conference’s significance was the opportunity for these new national churches to act as a consistent and catholic whole, especially given that, in contrast to the Church of Rome, missionary expansion was not attended with coercive power2 Lambeth’s activity and self-conception has waxed and waned over the decades, but realising the fundamentally relational nature of the Conference has led me to ask how I might then measure the significance of the approaching sitting. If I am looking for it to make decisions that bind one or other party or coerce this or that behaviour I suspect that I will be disappointed.
To be truthful, I am relieved that this is not so. I am an Australian and do not take kindly to being pushed around by larger more powerful groups. Further I am a child of the Reformation who understands that I must weigh my action first before God, even as I sit in the counsels of God’s people. However, I am content that this sitting of the Conference is significant because it can do at least five things, each of which is necessary in an era not unlike that which provoked the first.
The most important aspect of the Lambeth Conference is that it amplifies relationship. Even if I am troubled by my association with others, I am inescapably linked to folk from all over the world. While we may need to work hard to discern what we understand to be our ‘gospel to proclaim’, our related-ness must give way to actual relationship. This is connected to but different to unity (a declaration of being) in that relationship is instrumental rather than ontological.
This leads to the second significant property, in that part of relationship’s instrumentality is that it affords an opportunity for clarification. Too often I find that relational (let alone geographical) distance leads to misunderstanding, misrepresentation and the entrenching of positions before solutions can be discussed. There may be no solutions to offer, but unless each generation tries it is wrong to assume that there are none. Lambeth began as a key way for those asked to lead the Anglican Church in an environment that did not make for ready conversation which allowed for problems to be discussed and reservations shared. I do not think that we are far different from then.
One of Anglicanism’s weaknesses is that we try to legislate to ensure correct behaviour. It is the artefact of the good desire for doing the Christian life ‘decently and in good order’, but simple legislation is far from sufficient to deal with matters that involve deep difference. Given the freedom of a non-coercive framework, being able to simply talk (for its relational instrumentality and the chance to clarify meaning and intention) is a blessing. If too much weight of expectation is hung upon the Conference, it will be easy to be disappointed. However, it is surprising the opportunities that can arise if discussion is pursued knowing that I cannot make you do anything.
The fourth significant aspect is that this sitting marks a return to the matters that prompted the first sitting. In my reading the need for Lambeth was an artefact of the Anglican Church’s success. It became necessary because of missionary expansion and because of the unique diocesan episcopalianism the Anglican Church holds dear. It is hardly surprising that we need to continue to conference 153 years later.
And finally did I mention it is an amplification of relationship? I am reminded once more of the lengths that Paul went to in maintaining relationship with the Corinthian church. He did not agree with them frequently. He drew them into his confidence at personal cost. He lost sleep over their beliefs, actions and attitudes. Yet he remained in relationship (yes even the expelled brother was included in this!). If Paul could do it at such cost, then a Conference once a decade is no hard ask.
1 A deliberate phrase
2 It is interesting to reflect on this decision as it relates to Article XXXIV (Of the Traditions of the Church) and the nature of locally derived congregations who share an apostolic and episcopal heritage.