The Limitations of Lambeth

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In less than a week’s time Anglican bishops from around the world will gather for what is usually a decennial Lambeth Conference in London. This year, a sizable number of bishops will not be attending the conference in protest at what they see as departures from biblical truth and standards of behaviour by a growing number of provinces in the Anglican Communion. They hold little hope that these departures will be addressed by the conference since so many of the bishops who will be attending have promoted them or have refused to speak against them. It is important to manage our expectations as the conference approaches. The first Lambeth Conference was held in 1867, and was very deliberately a conference rather than a council or synod. The Lambeth Conference does not make decisions that are binding on all in the Anglican Communion. The first presidential address, delivered by Archbishop Charles Longely, was explicit about this.

“It has never been contemplated that we should assume the functions of a general synod of all the churches in full communion with the Church of England, and take upon ourselves to enact canons that should be binding upon those here represented. We merely propose to discuss matters of practical interest, and pronounce what we deem expedient in resolutions which may serve as safe guides to future action.”

In other words, Lambeth cannot legislate, its resolutions can merely express the opinions of those present. This was obvious when we consider the aftermath of Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Conference. Within months of the Lambeth Conference passing this resolution on human sexuality, provinces in America and Canada acted in ways which demonstrated that they did not consider the resolution to have any binding authority. They would not be swayed by the resolution, not even with an extraordinary majority vote in support of 526 to 70 (with 40 abstentions), nor by subsequent entreaties from successive Primates’ Meetings and the Global South. It is not too much to say that they treated Resolution 1.10 with contempt. What did Resolution 1.10 say?

“This conference a. commends to the church the subsection report on human sexuality; b. in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage; c. recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God’s transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and 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; d. while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex; e. cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions; f. requests the Primates and the ACC to establish a means of monitoring the work done on the subject of human sexuality in the Communion and to share statements and resources among us; g. notes the significance of the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality and the concerns expressed in resolutions IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23 and V.35 on the authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality and asks the Primates and the ACC to include them in their monitoring process.”

Evangelicals and orthodox Anglo-catholics within the Anglican Communion rejoiced in the passage of this resolution. Revisionist Anglicans simply ignored it. Even the overwhelming majority it enjoyed on the floor of the Conference did not change that. However, it is very important to recognise that those who did rejoice at this passing of this resolution did not hold their view, nor consider it authoritative, because of Lambeth 1998 Resolution 1.10. Their view of marriage and appropriate sexual behaviour is not based on any resolution of the Lambeth Conference. Rather they have always understood that this is the biblical view of marriage and appropriate sexual behaviour. It is part of the teaching that God himself has given us in his written word. What made Resolution 1.10 such a cause of thanksgiving was that it recognised that. The phrases ‘in view of the teaching of Scripture’, ‘incompatible with Scripture’ and ‘the athority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality’ made it clear that even Lambeth Conferences have their limitations. Since 1998 a great deal of work has been done. The revisionists have pursued their program of departure from biblical teaching with determination. Other provinces have joined them (notably Scotland, New Zealand, and perhaps before too long England, if press reports about their General Synod are to be believed). The Global South has continued to stand firm against this trend and GAFCON has emerged as a movement of those committed to the authority of Scripture in all areas of faith and life. Lambeth 1998, encouraging as it was, has proven to be ineffectual in stemming the tide of theological and ethical revisionism nor has it provided any protection to those who upheld it. Faithful Christians have lost their churches, ministries and livelihoods as authorities have sought to silence those who resist them. As Lambeth approaches, we need a realistic view of what it is and what it can accomplish. Above all we need to remember that it is Scripture and not the proclamations and resolutions of Councils, synods or conferences that is the clear, reliable, authoritative and life-giving guide to how to live as a faithful disciple of Christ.