Lambeth Perspective: Not over while the web still spins

Sunday, 16 August 1998

This report was filed by Simon Sarmiento, in England.

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

Lambeth Perspective: Not over while the web still spins

Although it is now over a week since the last resolution was voted upon, and nearly two weeks since the section reports were first issued to the press, neither the complete text of the 105 resolutions nor any of the reports have been published at the official Lambeth Conference web site. This makes it very difficult to comment properly on the conference as a whole. There is little about the conference any longer in the British secular press, but the weekly church papers have lots to say.

The Church of England Newspaper heads its editorial "An Archbishop who provided genuine leadership" and says in part:

Dr. Carey was never going to be a wishy-washy Archbishop of Canterbury. He was known to be a man of conviction, and has proved to be so. But since when was Christian leadership merely a matter of straddling divides, and exercising diplomacy? While qualities of diplomacy and tact may be part of the armoury, Christian leadership always has conviction. If Christian leadership is not outspoken and often unpopular it is rarely effective.

In fact, Dr Carey has had an outstanding Lambeth Conference. Press criticism has been muted if only because bishops from every part of the world have praised Dr Carey's contribution in glowing terms, if asked, in nearly every press interview.

He is considered 'one of us' by Third World bishops because of the energy which he has put into supporting ministry in the developing world. His interventions in Rwanda and Sudan have been highly significant, and his support for the alleviation of poverty and the relief of Third World debt at every level has drawn the President of the World Bank, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Prime Minister to talks at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury and in London.

And on the same page, in an article "Conspiracy? What conspiracy?" discusses the question "Was there a right-wing conspiracy at Lambeth?" Here is part of the article:

The whispering campaign has failed to reveal that both the Church Times and the Church of England Newspaper also had offices in the Franciscan Study Centre, courtesy of the American Anglican Council and the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (an organisation that could hardly be described as right-wing).

About 15 staff from these two organisations were based at the Franciscan Study Centre and it is indeed true that they provided support and resources to the Third World bishops and also to many other bishops from different parts of the world. They also hosted the work of the official sub-section on Human Sexuality in a far more suitable room than the one which had been officially provided.

The facilities provided by the AAC and OCMS - both organisations that are happy to call themselves evangelical and orthodox in faith - were intended to resource and network the Third World bishops and provide care, in a way that the official bureaucracy could never have done. The staff also helped those African and Asian bishops make sense of the largely western procedures in the debate, although many of them did not need this service.

After three weeks as a journalist at the Lambeth Conference, it is quite clear to me that there is no right wing conspiracy, merely an honest attempt to enable Third World bishops to have a greater voice in the Lambeth Conference. This initiative has quite frankly worked. Furthermore this new networking has brought about a new and promising environment in which to be an Anglican in the next century.

Elsewhere in the same journal, Andrew Carey writes about the Bishop of Dallas:

Jim Stanton knows that the whispering campaign against him has begun. When I spoke to him at the Lambeth Conference, he said that on his return he would be accused of manipulating the Lambeth Conference by buying African and Asian votes.

This he regards as an insult against the Third World bishops. "In terms of how manipulatable they are, go talk to them, they have strength and dignity. "Many of these bishops were trained in the United States and Britain. They have the advantage of knowing the failings of the West and emptiness of the social gospel and the bankruptcy of our culture."

"Americans," he says, "see things in terms of power." And this, he argues, is what has led to the accusations of buying votes. American liberalism is so convinced that it is right and it now cannot believe that it has lost power in the Anglican Communion. A number of American bishops are reeling at the fact that the liberal approach to human sexuality was given such a bloody nose at the Lambeth Conference.

The British Roman Catholic weekly The Catholic Herald has a whole page devoted to the conference, written by ex-Anglicans John Gummer and Father Peter Geldard, and also by Ruth Gledhill, whose story "Dr Carey triumphant" appears at

Fr Geldard, who is now the Catholic Chaplain at the University of Kent, writes in part:

I was present at the Lambeth conferences of both 1978 and 1988. This experience gave me a unique advantage... This time, as an outsider too, I was more able to see the wood from the trees.

Because most participants attend only one Lambeth conference in their lifetime the organisers and spin doctors have a phenomenal amount of control - perhaps manipulation would not be too strong a word.... So managed was the conference that it was not possible even to find out where other bishops were staying unless one had access to the photocopied samizdat sheet containing such details. Similarly, the Establishment was so paranoid over the possibility that bishops might talk too openly that they tried to restrict interviews with the press to those they arranged.

Aware of these tactics, certain traditionalist organisations, notably Forward in Faith from England and the American Anglican Council had set up well-staffed offices working just outside the campus (and therefore outside the control of the conference organisers.) These were able to co-ordinate bishops in sympathy with their aims, especially those from Africa and Asia. ....The result was a dramatic and powerful affirmation that for Christians sexual relations should be confined to marriage, and a condemnation of same-sex unions and the ordination of practising homosexuals.

But what did this affirmation amount to? Every Lambeth Conference is governed in its long-term effects by two principles that in the end neutralise any resolution, no matter how apparently decisive. The first principle is Provincial Autonomy. The second is that of Ambiguity.

... History has shown that every province - including the Church of England in the past - ignores Lambeth conferences whenever it feels expedient to do so. Already, voices from the US and Canada have begun to state that they "are not bound" by anything said at Canterbury these last few weeks.

And the wording of even the strongest of resolutions - including that on homosexuality - is so purposefully full of ambiguities that anyone can interpret it in his own way and to his own advantage. The resolution on Ecumenism, indeed, actually endorses "anomalies" as constituting a quality in its own right.

By far the best overall summary of the conference produced so far is the lengthy editorial in the Church Times which I would urge everyone to read in full. It can be found until Friday 21 August at

and a permanent archive copy is already available on Anglicans Online at

Here is the concluding portion of it:

Use of the Bible
Homosexuality, though, was in one sense, only a cypher. The real division exposed at this Conference concerned the use of the Bible. This was why the organisers were right to lay such stress on the daily Bible studies, and to recruit Professor David Ford to conduct two plenaries on the subject. But it was not enough. The encouragement to the bishops to tell their stories was a courageous post-modern attempt to relate experience to biblical teaching; but in three weeks they could only begin to break down the serious differences which exist between traditionalists, modernists and post- modernists. Personal contacts meant that breaches were made, but, once the voting began, bishops behaved as if they were diocesan delegates and set these personal experiences aside. What was lost with this jump from the personal to the provincial was any acknowledgement, particularly from the Southern bishops, that approaches to the Bible are culturally conditioned, and that this is legitimate. Just as, in the West, democratic, non-authoritarian influences have coloured the application of scripture (increasing personal links with Christ, diminishing accountability and obedience to others), so, in the South, a literal reading of the Bible has been encouraged by cultural forces there. These include the fundamentalist approach to the Qu'ran which predominates in many countries in Africa; but it can also be traced back to the influence of some of the English missionary societies which carved up the continent between them at the end of the last century.

This poses a serious problem for those whose task it is to forge the Anglican Communion into a more truly international Church. As long as the concept of biblical interpretation--and, with it, ethical accommodation-- is associated with Western liberalism, it will be resisted by conservatives around the world. The first tentative steps towards a more centralised power-base which we saw at this Conference were influenced by this question. The Southern bishops have confidence in Dr Carey, but not necessarily in whoever his successor might be. As a consequence, they prefer to see power vested in the Primates Meeting. But shifting the Anglican focus away from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury has many attendant dangers.

Liberal sympathy
What was missed at this Lambeth Conference was the degree of sympathy felt by Western bishops towards those from the South. This was not simply the growing influence of Evangelicalism in the West, but a genuine appreciation that the voice of Anglicanism did not have a sufficiently strong Southern accent. The liberals came prepared to step aside; but the combined effect of Bishop Spong's pre-Lambeth contribution, the bungling over the framing of the homosexuality resolution, and the suspicious nature of the conservative Americans obscured this truth. Many voted willingly for the amended sub-section resolution on homosexuality, even though it did not reflect their own views; when this was hardened up during the plenary, they continued to support it, but less happily. (Several conservatives shared their misgivings.)

A success?
The reaction of the Southern bishops will determine whether this was a successful Lambeth Conference or not. The balance of the agenda and the resolutions, reflecting many of the South's concerns, is a positive sign, particularly in the economic field. The power in the Anglican Communion has, indeed, shifted southwards. However, the balance of theological education is still tipped heavily towards the West, and anti-Western prejudice must not be allowed to obstruct the growth of the whole Communion towards a sounder, more encompassing theological understanding.

Copyright © 1998 Society of Archbishop Justus.
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