Lambeth Conference

Talking shop or legislator?

by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 31 - Oct 2008

It was a new departure for the MCU to have a stall at the Lambeth Conference, and fascinating too. The number of stalls was double the original expectations and that meant putting up an extra marquee, where we sweltered in the hot weather.

One task was to meet the other stallholders, handing out our literature and receiving theirs. Then there were the folk from the press, and the stewards - some of them young Theology students interested in our work.

And the bishops. They had a busy programme, so we only saw them in batches when they had been let loose. The press, excluded from most of their deliberations, struggled for comments which could be turned into a sensational story and most bishops were canny enough to choose their words with care.

As we dished out our literature - especially the new leaflet with 'Liberal Theology' printed clearly on the front - it was fun to see the reactions. Some avoided eye contact and steered clear of us, walking along the other side of the aisle (and thus finding themselves at the WATCH stall). One man settled down for a good long argument, but he was exceptional: many were pleased to see us, and exclaimed things like 'Liberal theology - that's what we need!' I was pleasantly surprised how many people had heard of us and supported us.

So after Lambeth, where does the Anglican Communion stand? Some bishops complained that it was only a talking-shop; it did not make decisions and therefore was not worth the time and effort. Others - including most of the press - have argued that keeping tempers calm and avoiding divisive debates was a valuable achievement.

It is perhaps worth recalling how in 1867 many bishops feared the first Lambeth Conference would turn into a legislative body. The then Archbishop of Canterbury emphasized that this was not the intention but the Archbishop of York, suspecting this was how things would turn out, refused to attend. He had a point. The last Conference, in 1998, was characterized by plenary debates, formal resolutions, votes and the inevitable winners and losers. Archbishop Rowan Williams was determined not to do the same again this time; the emphasis was to be on listening to each other and learning from each other. Admittedly many liberals long for the day when the Archbishop himself listens to the American churches long enough to realize that the threat of schism comes not from their use of their provincial autonomy but from other people's refusal to respect it; but that aside, it is an achievement if bishops have learned to respect their opponents' opinions a bit more.

This perhaps points the best way forward with respect to the proposed Anglican Covenant. If there is to be a Communion-wide legislative body with power to limit the autonomy of the provinces - and many are still not convinced that there should be - it matters a great deal what body it is and how its members are chosen. It will not do simply to give these extra powers to a particular body simply because it already exists.

Elsewhere, committees with this much power are normally expected to represent the membership, and to have terms of reference focusing on the aims of the organization. In the case of Anglicanism both are problematic. Representation means democratic elections, and elections mean clear dividing lines between members and non-members. Neither systems of representation nor membership rules are uniform across the provinces. Moreover recent debates have revealed varying and incompatible understandings of what Anglicanism is. The MCU usually likes to think of itself as an authentic continuation of that tradition spanning from Hooker through the Cambridge Platonists and Latitudinarians, valuing the balance of Scripture, reason and tradition and the scope it provides for development and new ideas. Conservative evangelicals generally appeal instead to the sixteenth century formation of the Church of England as a predominantly Calvinist church, and are therefore more resistant to change. Anglo-Catholics appeal to the continuity with Catholicism as expressed by Henry VIII, Laud and the Oxford Movement; in principle they allow more scope for development than do conservative evangelicals, but divisions on the matter have produced sharp disagreements over women priests. Any powerful new central body would have to be answerable to some account of what Anglicanism is, and it would make a big difference which account dominated.

So this time Lambeth didn't legislate, and despite the frustrations felt by many it was probably a good thing. One way of describing the current controversy is to see it as a clash of interests between on the one hand the desire to retain unity and on the other the desire to treat gays and lesbians with fairness and justice. From the perspective of the Archbishop of Canterbury and his Anglo-Catholic supporters this is perhaps the most natural way to perceive it. But if it is in any way at all a legitimate description, the Lambeth Conference cannot possibly be a suitable judge. Bishops, by the nature of their office, have an interest in maintaining the structures which give them their role; although some feel strongly enough to want a split, most are more anxious to retain unity than lay Anglicans or neutral observers would be. Conversely homosexuals, the biggest losers in the present situation, were not officially represented at all at Canterbury.

To propose resolutions, debate and vote, is to separate winners from losers and narrow the range of permitted options. Decisions made like this make it harder for the discussions - the analyzing and listening - to continue; after all, one side has been decreed wrong. They are also usually difficult to repeal. Richard Hooker himself lived in an age when Anglican clergy were obliged to believe all the 39 Articles, and spent the last few years of his life defending himself against the accusation that he did not. Today the Articles' assertions and concepts are so out of date that although many still claim to believe them all, they need to work hard on finding ways to interpret the wording. Though he had no choice, Hooker's time would have been better spent examining not whether his beliefs were consonant with the Articles but whether they were true. To appreciate the difference one might reflect on what effect it would have on medical science if all researchers were obliged to sign a form assenting to this years' research findings and undertaking never to promote alternatives.

When committed Christians strongly disagree about some aspect of their faith, the disagreement needs to be acknowledged. To legislate in favour of one side or the other is to close down debate too soon, to settle the matter by power structures instead of a genuine search for truth. Better to discuss our differences with each other, explain why we believe what we do, and listen. This requires time and scholarship. We have plenty of both, and should value them.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.