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The first Lambeth Conference in 1867

Lambeth Story

Every ten years, the bishops of the Anglican Communion attend a Lambeth Conference, 
an event unrivalled in the Anglican experience.

The bishops, overseers of churches, as the early church called them, are brought together by the Archbishop of Canterbury, with the encouragement of his fellow Church leaders. He is the focal point of the Lambeth Conference which, in turn, is defined by the bishops who attend.

Lambeth Palace
The unique event has increased in strength with every improvement in transportation and communication since the first conference was held in 1867. There were 76 bishops at this first Lambeth Conference; over 700 bishops will be coming to the 1998 conference, up from approximately 500 in 1988. In 1988 there were also 28 observers from other Churches in Communion with us and 37 special consultants and speakers.

The vast majority of bishops in the Anglican Communion today are neither English nor is English their first language. Their churches have grown uniquely, each in its own way. But their roots rest in 16th century England and in the Early Church. Their worship evolved from the English Book of Common Prayer. Their music began with traditional Christian hymns and chants. Their spirituality reflects these centuries of devotions.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury first invited Anglican bishops to Lambeth Palace in 1867 he was following a practice of the early church; apostles and those bishops they had consecrated, who in turn consecrated others in what is called apostolic succession. These early bishops always gathered to resolve their differences. Unlike an early church council, though, the Lambeth Conference is not a legislative body; its resolutions are not binding within the Anglican Communion. Bishops, however, carry Lambeth reports back to clergy and laity in their own autonomous provinces where they carry much weight because Lambeth Conferences have acquired an influence at times "so close to authority as hardly to be distinguishable from it," according to Cambridge University historian Owen Chadwick in his introduction to Resolutions of the Twelve Lambeth Conferences.

Canterbury Cathedral
The steamship and airplane, the telegraph and telephone, the computer and electronic telecommunication have reinforced its strength by enabling bishops all over the world to visit England without deserting their own responsibilities at home.

The Conference was named after the Archbishop of Canterbury's London residence, Lambeth Palace, on the south side of the Thames at Lambeth Bridge where bishops met until their sheer number dictated a change. They moved, in 1978, to Canterbury, whose cathedral contains his official seat.

The Anglican Communion defines itself as churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, sharing the tradition of a Book of Common Prayer, with clergy made up of bishops, priests and deacons as well as the ministry of the laity. One of these, the Anglican Church of Canada, requested the first Lambeth Conference, which was held in 1867.

St. Augustine's chair
from the Altar,
Canterbury Cathedral
The See of Canterbury could never have ruled this worldwide Communion because The Church of England is governed by English law and tradition. The Archbishop of Canterbury does not even govern York within England. In fact the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Durham refused to attend the first Lambeth Conference in 1867. Nor could the Archbishop of Canterbury call Lambeth a 'council' because the Church of England may not gather councils 'without the commandment and will of Princes', according to the Thirty-Nine Articles on which the Church of England was founded. So Lambeth is a conference, not a council, with power only to confer, consult, discuss, debate and vote on resolutions.

Many doubted such a conference would be worth attending and did not believe 76 bishops could debate successfully but the first, four-day conference quickly dispelled those doubts. Though they came from many countries these bishops shared the same roots, They were all pilgrims to St. Augustine's Chair at Canterbury and to the Cathedral where Thomas Becket was martyred. They drew inspiration, energy, and power from Canterbury and from their common prayer.

Site of the martyrdom,
Canterbury Cathedral
They quickly found they shared an ecumenical desire for reunion with other Christian churches who share Anglican belief in:

  1. the Bible as sufficient rule of faith
  2. two creeds
  3. two sacraments instituted by Christ
  4. the apostolic succession

The bishops began to include the Roman Catholic Church in their ecumenical vision after World War I as well as the Russian Revolution had left an increasingly secular and disillusioned mood throughout the world, against which all Churches were united.

Lambeth Conferences began to witness too, in such culturally ethical matters as polygamy, divorce, and family planning. The 1958 Lambeth Conference report, The Family in Contemporary Society, reaffirmed at Lambeth 1968, has continued to play a vital advocacy role around the world.

With the increase in its voice came the desire to embody the Lambeth Conference in the decades between meetings. The position of Anglican Secretary General, originally called Executive Officer, was established in 1960 and altered when the first Anglican Consultative Council met in 1971. The Primates (bishops presiding over their national or multi-national church organisations) began meeting annually in 1979.

But it is the Archbishop of Canterbury around whom the Anglican Communion gathers. He is not called a "patriarch", as Orthodox Churches call their presidents, nor is he called a "pope" as the Roman Catholic Church calls its spiritual head. Instead Anglicans simply agree that he is a visible symbol of their world-wide communion.

And the Lambeth Conference is their centrepiece. Over the decades it has created a body of faith and practice through its resolutions. Themes have emerged, such as:

The 1998 Lambeth Conference will face the challenge of enabling the Communion to face future key issues that will see its development into the next millennium.

Next: The Canterbury Story...

Abp. Carey's Letter · His Role · Lambeth · Canterbury · Preparations · Finances · Sec. General · Related Links

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