Lambeth Perspective: calm before the storm

Canterbury: Sunday, 2 August 1998

This report was filed by Simon Sarmiento, on the scene in England.

Other Anglicans Online coverage, with links to many other articles, is on the web at

Lambeth Perspective - Calm Before the Storm

This weekend, many bishops have gone away from Canterbury to get some rest, before the third and most hectic week starts. During the next six days there will, finally, be some plenary sessions where bishops are allowed to make totally unscripted remarks. The conference Resolutions Committee, chaired by the Bishop of Natal (South Africa), Michael Nuttall, is working overtime to produce a consolidated set of resolutions for consideration. The procedure is "genuinely designed to allow issues which are the key ones to emerge", and allows proposals to come only from section and regional meetings, and not from individuals. Non-contentious resolutions may be approved without any debate at all. The indefatigable Secretary-General of the General Synod of the Church of England, Philip Mawer, is secretary to this committee. The general idea is that the bishops will return on Monday to find a large pile of paper ready for them to review and start discussing in smaller groups before the first plenary session which is booked for 3.30 p.m. Tuesday. Further sessions of 90 minutes each are planned, but never more than two per day.

Stephen Parkinson, of the English Forward in Faith group has calculated that even if there are as few as twelve resolutions to be debated, there are only six hours allocated for these plenary sessions. So overall each resolution may get half an hour of time, and fewer than a hundred bishops will get a chance to say anything at all (and he was amusingly assuming that bishops would speak for less than three minutes each....)

The press has found it easier until now to follow the plenaries on closed circuit television at the Media Centre. As Andrew Brown explained to readers of the paper version of the Church Times:

...the press gallery in the plenary hall itself is arranged so that only about a quarter of the seats in it have any view of the stage. If you sit in any of the others, the best you can hope for is that you won't snore too loudly.

And he continued:

In fact, the people who want to talk to the press are the bishops who wish the Conference ill for one reason or another, and who can not, in any way, be spun off into outer darkness. So everyone is very happy. The press get to engage in a silly and hugely gratifying game of teasing the grown-ups; the intriguers get to intrigue as much as they can; and Dr Beaver gets to open each morning's press conference with a proud statement that his department has processed 230 requests for interviews and information that day (or whatever the figure is). No one so far has been beastly enough to ask how much information or how many interviews have emerged as a result of all this processing, though one of the more professional communicators has been heard to remark that what this campus really needs is a system of talking drums, since runners don't work and only the women have cell phones.

Unhappiness at the attempted total management of the news is widespread. Doug LeBlanc wrote for United Voice :

At the Lambeth Conference, however, plenary sessions are among the most overly scripted and control-heavy meetings in the history of religious conferences. Only Jehovah's Witnesses or - worse for Episcopalians - Southern Baptists could compete with the minute-by- minute scheduling evident in Canterbury. Not once have the bishops had a chance to gather as one plenary body, with the freedom to speak spontaneously at open microphones about the issues they consider most urgent. Such sessions need not take on the verbal fisticuffs of General Convention. An honest disagreement would suffice.

When the bishops gather in plenary they see high- production-value videos from Trinity Institute that explore Anglican diversity on everything from homosexuality to euthanasia to biblical interpretation. They see a theatrical piece that brings all the bleakness of a Samuel Beckett play to the epic story of Jacob and Esau. They hear lengthy, dense papers read with minimal inflections (often by white males from the United Kingdom). If they're fortunate, they may hear a variety of shorter presentations from a wider variety of bishops. But they don't get a chance to respond verbally to any of these presentations - not in plenary session, at least.

Worrying in advance about possible disputes seems akin to a frightened elementary student dying a thousand deaths in fear before finding that the schoolyard bully isn't so tough after all. The bully, in this case, is the fear of a good family fight. The longer the Conference tries to forestall that possibility, the more likely the fight seems to become.

And Ruth Gledhill of The Times wrote on Saturday of her feelings about this in the weekly review of a church service that is a regular feature of that paper:

THERE ARE 750 bishops at the Lambeth Conference. Apart from their wives and husbands, the journalists are among the few lay people present. Whether it is because we are lay or press is difficult to say, but we have become the pariahs of the conference, the tax collectors up a tree, with nobody by the name of Jesus to ask us to dinner. We have been issued with fluorescent pink badges, and bishops, briefed by spin doctors, say that "pink means danger". Our badges, which must be worn at all times, have become the visual equivalent of the leper's handbell. Thus adorned, with shocking pink scarf, skirt and nail varnish added to match for good measure, I turned up at an early morning conference eucharist to find the Archbishop of Tanzania preaching on sin, repentance and forgiveness. ... "The church must strive to be a prophetic ministry, and its leaders must go home equipped to proclaim the Gospel in the nations they come from". ... After the sermon, we prayed: "Give the light of the Holy Spirit to all who teach and influence the minds of others."

I was seated among African bishops. During the peace, they turned and, after a moment's hesitation, blinded by the bright glare of the shiny pink badge, they forgave my sin of being a journalist and we shook hands in fellowship. The only odd note came at the end when, after a distinctively African service, we launched for some reason into a rousing rendition of the great Welsh hymn, "Guide me Oh thou Great Redeemer". But for this pilgrim in a barren land, maybe it was not so odd after all.

This weekend, the London papers already had copies of the draft report from the sexuality section. See detailed reports in The Independent or The Times from Saturday. Here are some quotes from the draft, compiled from those sources:

We must confess that we are not of one mind about homosexuality." The bishops fall into four main categories, according to the report. They are: "Those who believe homosexual orientation is a disorder, but that through the grace of Christ people can be changed, although not without pain and struggle; those who believe that relationships between people of the same gender should not include genital expression, that this is the clear teaching of the Bible and of the Church universal, and that such activity (if unrepented of) is a barrier to the Kingdom of God; those who believe that committed homosexual relationships fall short of the biblical norm, but are to be preferred to relationships that are anonymous and transient; and those who believe that the Church should accept and support or bless monogamous covenant relationships between homosexual people and that they may be ordained."

The report says: "Holy Scriptures and Christian tradition teach that human sexuality is intended by God to find its rightful and full expression between a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage, established by God in creation, and affirmed by our Lord Jesus Christ." It continues: "Holy matrimony is, by intention and divine purpose, to be a life-long, monogamous and unconditional commitment between a man and a woman."

The report calls on earlier Lambeth Conference resolutions, the New Testament and tradition to argue that remaining single and being chaste are "Christ- like ways of living". It says homophobia is wrong and ...homosexuality was not included in a list of "expressions of sexuality" the Church deems "inherently contrary to the Christian way" and "sinful." Such expressions were listed as including: "Promiscuity, incest, pornography, paedophilia, predatory sexual behaviour, sadomasochism (all of which may be heterosexual and homosexual), adultery, violence against wives, and female circumcision." From a Christian perspective these forms of sexual expression remain sinful in any context," it says.

...the report acknowledges "there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation" without further qualification. Indeed, the report welcomes such people into the Church. "We wish to assure them that they are loved by God, and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ."

The report concedes that there are those who believe the Church should accept, support and even bless monogamous unions between people of the same sex. However, it continues: "It appears that the opinion of a majority of bishops is not prepared to bless same- sex unions or to ordain active homosexuals. Furthermore, many believe there should be a moratorium on such practices."

The bishops admit that, in spite of praying, studying and discussing the issues, they are unable to reach a "common mind" on the scriptural, theological, historical and scientific questions raised. They call for the Church's primates, the 38 archbishops, to set up a means of monitoring any work done in the Anglican Church on the issue.

The Telegraph had the story too, although for some reason their Lambeth stories are not making it into the web edition. Victoria Coombe reported that a separate resolution to "receive and recognise" the Kuala Lumpur statement would be put forward, quite separately from the report of the sexuality section. One may expect that the Resolutions Committee will need to spend some time considering how to handle that one.

Copyright © 1998 Society of Archbishop Justus.
[Contents page] [Anglicans Online] [Comments to web page maintainers]