The 1998 Lambeth Conference provided the first real test of the capability of Communion structures to deal with heretical teaching and practice. In Resolution I.10 on Human Sexuality, an overwhelming majority of bishops stated that homosexual practices were contrary to Scripture and “could not be advised.” After twenty-five years of controversy and many Communion meetings, Western churches continue to spurn this Resolution and have now formalized ordination and marriage of self-styled LGBT persons. These churches and bishops remain prominent members in the Communion in good standing.
Lambeth 1998 was the last true Lambeth Conference. At the same time, the Conference marked the coming of age of the Global South churches within the counsels of the Anglican Communion. The ground for this moment had been prepared at Lambeth 1988, which had called for the Primates, the majority of whom were from the Global South, to exercise an “enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters” (Resolution 18). This same Resolution called for quasi-independent “regional conferences” of bishops, clergy and laity, and in 1994, the first Anglican Encounter in the South met in Limuru, Kenya.
At the second Encounter meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1997, the assembly issued a remarkably clear doctrinal and pastoral statement on human sexuality. It is worth reading in its entirety, but one notes among other things the concern of Global South leaders about authority within the Communion:
- The Scripture bears witness to God’s will regarding human sexuality which is to be expressed only within the life long union of a man and a woman in holy matrimony.
- The Holy Scriptures are clear in teaching that all sexual promiscuity is sin. We are convinced that this includes homosexual practices, between men or women, as well as heterosexual relationships outside marriage.
- We believe that the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Holy Scriptures about human sexuality is of great help to Christians as it provides clear boundaries.
- We find no conflict between clear biblical teaching and sensitive pastoral care. Repentance precedes forgiveness and is part of the healing process. To heal spiritual wounds in God’s name we need his wisdom and truth. We see this in the ministry of Jesus, for example his response to the adulterous woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
- We encourage the Church to care for all those who are trapped in their sexual brokenness and to become the channel of Christ’s compassion and love towards them. We wish to stand alongside and welcome them into a process of healing within our communities of faith. We would also affirm and resource those who exercise a pastoral ministry in this area.
- We are deeply concerned that the setting aside of biblical teaching in such actions as the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions, calls into question the authority of the Holy Scriptures. This is totally unacceptable to us.
- This leads us to express concern about mutual accountability and interdependence within our Anglican Communion. As provinces and dioceses we need to learn how to seek each other’s counsel and wisdom in a spirit of true unity, and to reach a common mind before embarking on radical changes to Church discipline and moral teaching.
One can, I think, draw a straight line from the language of this Statement to the Resolution which was approved overwhelmingly at the Lambeth Conference eighteen months later.
The Global South Encounters created new opportunities for conservative leaders from North America and England to meet and build bridges with their counterparts in the Global South. I note in particular the tireless work of the Rev. Canon (now Bishop) Bill Atwood of the Ekklesia Society and of Drs. Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies – work ongoing to this day! – who sponsored a ground-breaking “Anglican Life and Witness Conference in Dallas, Texas in September 1997, with 57 bishops present, equally divided between the Global South and North.
As a veteran of the culture war in the Episcopal Church, I was asked to address the Conference on “The Handwriting on the Wall.” I concluded with this warning and appeal:
After a certain vote in the [Episcopal] General Convention that went the way of the moral innovators, someone turned to Bishop William Frey and said: “Well, Bill, I guess the handwriting is on the wall!” “Yes,” Bishop Frey replied, “and it says the same thing it said the first time.” The original handwriting was addressed to a complacent ruling class which had duped its people with idolatry. It read, Mene, Mene, Tekel Parsin: “God has numbered your days and brought it to an end” (Daniel 5:26-28).
I subtitled this talk “Why the Sexuality Conflict in the Episcopal Church Is God’s Word to the Anglican Communion,” and I conclude with a warning that failure to deal with the crisis in the Episcopal Church will endanger the unity of the Anglican Communion. Representatives from your provinces, meeting at Kuala Lumpur, have already raised the alarm in your statement on “Anglican Reconstruction.” This is a question that cannot be delayed. What will become of Anglican unity if the American church breaks into two bodies out of communion with each other, with one body officially linked to Canterbury and the other officially committed to Kuala Lumpur? If Anglican leaders look the other way in 1998, such a situation is distinctly possible.
I believe that if the worldwide Communion would speak clearly and forcefully to the American Church, there might be a turning back in our Church to the faith once delivered to the saints.
The handwriting is on the wall. Please spell it out for us, by the grace of God that is given you and the help of the Holy Spirit. Thank you.
I was privileged to attend the Lambeth Conference in 1998 as an observer (see my “Lambeth Diary” here). I observed how the Lambeth bureaucracy mobilized all their usual weapons – setting the agenda ahead of time, controlling the media, and playing politics with the various study groups. Yet when all was said and done, the Global South prevailed in passing Resolution I.10 on Human Sexuality, by a vote of 526 in favor with 70 opposed.
I am not going to expound this Resolution again (see my “Lambeth Speaks Plainly” here) but simply note its fundamental premise: that the Conference “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,” hence “rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture [emphasis added].
Repeatedly, representatives of the Global South appealed to the authority of the Bible, and in doing so they were upholding the fundamental principle of the English Reformation that “the Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written” (Article 20).
The authority of the Bible as God’s Word written for the Church is the fulcrum on which the Anglican Communion has teetered for a quarter century, with Global Anglicans standing firm on one side. The Archbishops of Canterbury, limping between two opinions and sounding an uncertain trumpet, failed to lead at the moment of crisis, assuring thereby that subsequent Lambeth conferences in 2008 and 2020 would be mere gabfests and not true councils of the Church.