The Episcopal Majority and Chris Webber have published the fourth and final part of his essay on "Unity and Diversity in the Lambeth Conference." The last of the series can be accessed HERE. Read them all.
Chris Webber has done a fine job of tracking several themes through the history of the Lambeth Conference. Lambeth, not the Archbishop of Canterbury, is arguably the central "focus of unity" in the Anglican Communion. The ABC may well be the instrument of unity, in that it he invites and hosts the meeting and is central to the planning and agenda building, but when the bishops meet it is the relations among them that provides unity. Of course that unity is not at all clean and clear cut. Rather it is a hodgepodge of encounters one with another. The unity that arises is the sort of thing one might expect of fellowship encounters rather than legislative struggle.
One of the tragedies of Lambeth 1998 was that too many stories coming from Lambeth were about struggles in plenary session and too few about encounters in fellowship. For all the snarky comments about the planning for this years Lambeth, the planners have it right: there must be more time, not less, for genuine encounters across the many divides in the Communion.
Webber's essay is a brief introduction to an important Anglican Communion activity and he is careful not to load the essay with too much detail. Still the pattern emerges and it is a remarkable one: The Lambeth Conference reflects on the concerns of the day and its collective opinion on matters do indeed change. There are no binding statements, only enduring concerns.
This sort of result does not satisfy the need for clarity or surety. Such needs must be met elsewhere.
The last two paragraphs of Webber's essay deserves our careful read:
"All this seems to raise again the central question of the Anglican ethos: Can a Christian community exist without a central authority and narrow definitions of doctrine? For centuries, royal authority and unquestioned cultural traditions enabled Anglicanism to survive and even thrive without such authority and definition. A world-wide community, existing in widely different cultures, no longer has these built-in supports. This might be an advantage if Anglicans were prepared to accept the variety of styles, theologies, liturgies, and polities that have resulted. One might imagine a community in which Christians were willing to accept strong episcopal authority in some places and strong lay leadership in others, narrow interpretation of the Bible in some societies and a more liberal interpretation in others. Why should African bishops have to dress like Victorian prelates and Japanese Christians be required to worship in Gothic buildings? Yet these cultural trappings have been accepted and the more significant differences that might reflect a truly encultured gospel have left us badly divided and on the verge of dissolution.
A careful review of our history, even one narrowly focused on some aspects of the Lambeth Conference, might lead us to be less sure of ourselves, more ready to listen, and more willing to leave a generous room for difference. If so many definitive statements of Lambeth have proved so subject to change, how sure should we be of our own current pronouncements? Might it be better to recognize that we might be wrong again and that we have yet to succeed in striking a proper balance between Biblical authority and cultural conditioning? Is it possible that we serve God’s church best when we do least to divide ourselves and do most to center our common life on a pattern of worship that draws us closer to the redeeming love of God?
These questions, it would seem, ought to be asked and should have been asked long ago."
It would be a mistake to think that these questions have not been asked. There are a wide variety of books and essays on just these matters. The problem, in part, has been that too few people have engaged the questions.
One of the oddly helpful benefits of all the hoopla in the Anglican Communion has been that many regular paid up Episcopalians and Anglicans throughout the world have experienced a wake up call - we are committed to one another in worship and in truth in so many ways and yet are very different in our understandings. It is time to spend time together in love rather than to run from one another in fear. We have only begun to ask the questions and hear the answers from one another. Will we have that time?