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This page last updated 28 August 1998  

On Lambeth
Martin Smith SSJE

A talk reporting on the Lambeth Conference given by Martin L. Smith SSJE during the Eucharist at the monastery, Cambridge, on Tuesday August 25th 1998.

Those who were eyewitnesses and participants of the Lambeth Conference have been encouraged to share their impressions of the event in their home communities and so I shall do so this evening in place of the homily.

Most of you know that the Lambeth Conferences are gatherings of the bishops of the Anglican Communion summoned by the Archbishop of Canterbury every ten years since the 1860s. The name derives from Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop's London residence, where they used to meet. The Conferences now take place in Canterbury. The purpose of the Conferences is for consultation. The bishops cannot legislate for the Anglican Communion or override the autonomy of the provinces. Any teaching or conclusions passed by the assembly has only an advisory character. The purpose of the Conferences has been to provide a means for periodic stocktaking of the evolving condition of world-wide Anglicanism. The reports that have been issued over the years have seldom had any earthshaking impact but they have supplied every decade current models of Anglican theological reflection so that Anglicans and Christians of other traditions can get a handle on our style of Christian witness.

I was present not only as support for Bishop Tom Shaw SSJE, as the head of his monastic household, but as a member of the team of chaplains who were available to the conference pastorally and to help practically with the liturgies.

In the main conference halls two huge symbols hung on the back wall. A rough cross of wood on one side and the symbol of the Anglican communion on the other, the compass rose with its motto in Greek from St John's Gospel, "the truth shall set you free." A very brave claim as a motto for a Church which I will take as the main theme for this series of personal reflections. In what ways was the Lambeth Conference an event of liberating truth, and in what ways was it not? This deep principle of St John's Gospel is a very radical one. Truth is active, it sets free. The converse is true. Where truth has been evaded, the effect is constriction, shutting up. The expression "liberation theology" is a a tautology. If theology does not emancipate it is not theology.

Where did truth set free at Lambeth? Well, most people would tell you that it was chiefly effective in the contexts of the daily bible studies in which each small group embodied in microcosm the cultural and racial diversities of our world-wide communion. Whether in the spouses' program, or among the bishops or in the chaplaincy bible study, there was the liberating effect of encountering the multiple perspectives and experiences of others. Here personal truth was shaking and moving. In my group we had the experience of life in Sri Lanka, Australia, Jamaica, Korea, Malaysia, England, Ghana, the USA -- and most groups were even more diverse. The scripture we were using was 2 Corinthians, a stressful and turbulent text, and the stories being shared everywhere were very passionate ones. Hardly a group existed that did not deal with tears and conflicts, stories of persecution and martyrdom, dire poverty, explosive evangelism, extreme conflicts in life experience that gave the lie to the conventional images of Anglicanism as something staid and safe.

As for the worship, there was evidence of truth setting free as each day a different province celebrated the Eucharist, not according to the old Book of Common Prayer which used to be the linchpin of Anglican identity, but according to the newer rites which expressed more effectively the particular culture that Church belonged to. There was a profusion of different languages, song and dance.

If these experiences of diversity were stimulating, there were other aspects that soon showed themselves to be more disturbing and painful. The important issue of the forgiveness of international debt had its personal impact as the certain bishops of the impoverished debtor nations identified particularly American bishops as personal representatives of the oppressor creditor nations. Racism, and reverse racism, colonialism and post-colonialism, all sorts of race-fueled resentments roiled around as the impact began to be registered of a vastly expanded episcopal presence especially from Africa. People were trying to take in as best they could all sorts of new ways of being identified and it was difficult for North Americans to accept the extent to which our privileged culture was stigmatized as not only stinkingly rich but also theologically and morally decadent. We could feel the undertow of the same geopolitical forces which have given rise particularly to the Islamic denunciation of America and its world-dominating culture as the Great Satan.

It is in this context we can begin to understand the extraordinary potency of the issue of homosexuality. The Archbishop of Canterbury has made no secret of the threats made by certain bishops from Southeast Asia and Africa in particular not only to walk out of the Lambeth Conference but to break up the Communion unless there was a condemnation of homosexual practice. He saw his role as preventing that split and believes he succeeded. It was blackmail. We know how this works. Whenever human societies experience social turmoil that threatens their unity one of the strategies our collective psyche is programmed for is scapegoating. An appearance of unity can be created af=resh by recruiting people to denounce a subgroup as the repository of evil and the cause of division. By ritually expelling this subgroup the larger society can reestablish its sense of purity. Most of the threats to walk out cane either from appallingly repressive authoritarian societies like Singapore or from African contexts which do not allow even the concept of gay and lesbian people, patriarchies that have no way of admitting into consciousness the realities we know here. Homosexuals serve as ideal symbols of what is alien, and this stigmatization was eagerly encouraged by a very active group of American conservative propagandists with lots of money to spend who occupied a command center in one of the residences of the campus, fomenting and encouraging this movement of collective blackmail.

Once these forces of the collective unconscious are released they are very powerful and thus the issue of sexuality soon dominated the conference. Of course the official rhetoric was to deplore this and remind the press of the other important issues the conference was dealing with. But the psychic undertow that had been unleashed was far too strong. Thus the debate on sexuality itself was memorable not so much for the result -- a typically unrealistic blanket ecclesiastical statement restricting all sex to the legal confines of the marriage bed -- as for the volcanic eruption of homophobic spleen. Only those who were actually present can describe the uncanny presence of evil. A deeply spiritual and learned bishop afterwards told the Archbishop that he knew what it was like now to be present at one of Hitler's Nuremberg rallies. The few bishops who spoke up for the gay and lesbian reality were literally hissed, and denounced in angry whispers as racists and imperialists, for if you supported gays you were opposing the witness of the third world bishops defending purity and scriptural authority. Paralyzed in this atmosphere and bogged down in the unwieldy and worldly mechanics of parliamentary procedure only a few bishops resisted what was happening when it came to a vote. The centerpiece of the TV news that night was a scene outside the hall where an African evangelical bishop attempted a forcible exorcism on one of the gay lobbyists. The camera dwelt on the white hand pushing the black hand away, thus vividly highlighting the racial dimensions of the clash.

"The truth shall set you free." Well, in the case of the sexuality resolution no doubt it will not have the slightest effect on the living and loving of people all over the world. These pronouncements of ecclesiastics never do. But it will of course do more damage to the credibility of the church particularly among young people. And it will provide weapons for those who want to reverse what little progress has been made in the Christian integration of the gay and lesbian reality. A small group have gone to great lengths to obtain these weapons and they will use them. But the main shock of this Lambeth Conference was the discovery that Anglicans are going to find it difficult to pretend that from now on we have a common theological method to arrive at truth together. Anglican s have always claimed that truth emerges from a strenuous process of intelligent reflection and interpretation of scripture and tradition. But participation in this process has now become something very patchy and precarious among the bishops. Literally hundreds of bishops in the newly expanded churches have had no more theological education than a few months of bible school, and the only form of discourse they know is a very simple form of biblical literalism. I overheard a primate use the phrase "Pentecostalists in miters." Public Anglican theology done by bishops is now incoherent as whole groups construct reality in quite different contexts and in radically different ways.

The most sinister development that threatens the coherence of Anglicanism is a coalition of forces that attempts to discredit modern scholarly interpretation of scripture itself by linking it with immorality and decadence, and contrasts that with the supposed bond between moral purity and biblical literalism.

The experience of Lambeth has stirred in me, as it has in many others a storm of urgent questions. Should we ever again leave the bishops to represent Anglicanism alone, without the presence of the laity and the other orders of ordained ministers? Isn't this gathering of bishops a theological anachronism? Isn't it obvious how the hegemony of men in the church is distorting its public witness with typically male obsessions and anxieties? Don't we have to forge new forms of public theology that are not driven by the needs to produce political-style resolutions or hampered by the ludicrous mechanisms of parliamentary procedure? How are we going to raise up leaders who can really interpret in the Spirit the chaotic and complex forces of our postmodern world, and not muddled ecclesiastics trying to keep up appearances?

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