Part III Coming to Grips with Unity and Diversity in the Lambeth Conference

by Christopher L. Webber    

  • Marriage seen as primarily for procreation 1930
  • Definition of Anglican Communion adopted  1948
  • Growth in understanding of marriage 1958 
  • Consultative Council given broader membership and mission
  • This image of Lambeth Palace is an 1834 engraving from the Government Art Collection

    At the first Lambeth Conference the question of creating a “Spiritual Court of Appeal” was raised, and the next conference suggested creating Voluntary Boards of Arbitration for Churches to which such an arrangement may be applicable, but nothing was done. The 1897 Conference called on the Archbishop of Canterbury to institute a “consultative body” to provide information and advice on request, but nothing seems to have been done as result of that call.


    When the bishops next gathered at Lambeth Palace, in 1930, their views on marriage remained those of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which was still the standard book in most parts of the Communion. That book stated, and the bishops re-affirmed, that “the primary purpose for which marriage exists is the procreation of children.”

    If parents were no longer enthusiastic about large families, the bishops called for “deliberate and thoughtful self-control . . . in intercourse.” At this conference, there was no condemnation of prophylactics, although the bishops still believed that limiting or avoiding parenthood should be effected primarily by abstinence. Now, however, they resolved that “where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence . . . other methods may be used” – though not for selfishness or mere convenience. What those other methods might be – when the use and sale of prophylactics was condemned – was left unclear, but at least the bishops seemed to recognize that the world was changing and the 1662 Prayer Book might not be the last word on the purposes of marriage. But there was strong opposition to this statement and, though it was approved by a 3-1 margin, 67 bishops voted against.


    The 1948 meeting finally defined a Consultative Council made up of bishops that would serve as the continuation committee of the conference and empowered it to deal with any matters referred to it by the Archbishop of Canterbury, but without legislative or executive powers. It seems unlikely that the Council met during the next ten years.

    This photograph during the Lambeth Conference in July 1948 shows (L to R) Bishop Hallwood of Hong Kong, Bishop Chang of Fukien or Fujian, Bishop Percy Jones of Sierra Leone, and Assistant Bishop R. W. Jones of Wales. Photo by Edward G. Malindine, Topical Press Agency.

    World War II created another obstacle to meeting, and it was 1948 before the bishops assembled again. Inspired, perhaps, by the recently created United Nations, the 1948 conference was the first to attempt a definition of the Anglican Communion, stating that:

    The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, which have the following characteristics in common:

    1. they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorised in their several Churches;
    2. they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and
    3. they are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference.


    By 1958, the Lambeth Conference was ready to look at marriage in a much more positive way and rooted its statements carefully in a positive theology. Marriage, they said, is a “vocation to holiness” and the idea of the family is “rooted in the Godhead.” “Consequently,” the bishops agreed, “all problems of sex relations, the procreation of children, and the organisation of family life must be related, consciously and directly, to the creative, redemptive, and sanctifying power of God.” Family planning, they now agreed, is “a right and important factor in Christian family life and should be the result of positive choice before God.” Instead of condemning contraception, they now believed that methods “mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience” were acceptable.

    Concentrating as they were on the family, the bishops had little to say about women’s ministry outside the home except to say that “fuller use should be made of trained and qualified women, and that spheres of progressive responsibility and greater security should be planned for them.”


    The Conference also affirmed “that the marriage of one whose former partner is still living may not be celebrated according to the rites of the Church, unless it has been established that there exists no marriage bond recognised by the Church.”

    But women were planning for themselves, and when the bishops met again, in 1968, the issue of women’s ordination was upon them and they were not ready.

    The Lambeth Conference expressed the opinion that the theological arguments for and against the ordination of women to the priesthood were “inconclusive,” and asked that the member churches study the matter carefully and seek advice from the Consultative Council before doing anything rash.

    The bishops also took note of the recent papal statement condemning all methods of birth control except abstinence and the so-called “rhythm” method. The bishops at Lambeth agreed that the pope was in error on this subject. Of course, that meant the bishops themselves had been in error in 1920; but Anglican bishops can change their minds, and popes find it difficult to do that.

    The bishops had always been reluctant to exercise leadership, but now they were willing to share it. The 1968 conference made radical changes in the Anglican Consultative Council, ordering it to include equal numbers of bishops, priests, and lay people from the five largest provinces and a priest or lay person as well as a bishop from the others. The Council could also select six other individuals to serve with them, of whom two must be women and two less than 28 years old.  Now, for the first time, there would be an official body created to help build relationships between the member churches of the Communion. A Communion that had been held together simply by “mutual affection,” a Prayer Book tradition, and occasional meetings of bishops would now have a representative body meeting every two years.  Communion would be expressed through a committee.
    Part IV:  Living Together in the Global Community


    •  Ordination of women a central and divisive issue
    • Study of homosexuality called for  1978
    • “Impaired communion” recognized  1988
    • Role of primates discussed 

    This view of Lambeth Palace was taken from across the Thames River in 2004, courtesy of Wikipedia.


    When the bishops met again, in 1978, women were already being ordained to the priesthood, not only in the Episcopal Church (U.S.), but also in Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Canada. Photo at right: July 29, 1974, marks the first ordinations of women to the priesthood in the United States, an event referred to as the “Philadelphia Eleven” when eleven women were “irregularly” consecrated. Photo courtesty Episcopal News Service.

    Eight other provinces had agreed to do so or saw no objection. The bishops, faced with deep divisions on the issue, saw their role as pastoral care, not leadership; rather than take a potentially divisive stand, they pleaded for patience and unity. In an awkward sentence, unworthy of Cranmer’s heirs, they expressed the hope

    (a) that Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches would see the holding together of diversity within a unity of faith and worship is part of the Anglican heritage; (b) that those who have taken part in ordinations of women to the priesthood believe that these ordinations have been into the historic ministry of the Church as the Anglican Communion has received it; and (c) that we hope the dialogue between these other Churches and the member Churches of our Communion will continue because we believe that we still have understanding of the truth of God and his will to learn from them as together we all move towards a fuller catholicity and a deeper fellowship in the Holy Spirit.

    Matters of gender had not disappeared from the 1978 agenda, and the bishops reported that they viewed the issues surrounding human sexuality as being “complex.” There was a need, they said, “for theological study of sexuality in such a way as to relate sexual relationships to that wholeness of human life which itself derives from God, who is the source of masculinity and femininity.” In particular, while they “reaffirm[ed] heterosexuality as the scriptural norm,” they recognized “the need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research.” They recognized as well a need for pastoral concern and dialogue. Such dialogue had already begun in some places, but not enough. Twenty years later, it would cause angry debate. Thirty years later, it would be dividing the Communion and calling the very continuance of the Lambeth Conference and even the Anglican Communion into question.

    Perhaps “dispassionate study” of homosexuality was still possible, but the issue of women’s ordination was beginning to cause serious divisions. 58 years after the conference had said that women might be ordained only as deaconesses, the conference was asking for patience and sensitivity and the possible provision of alternative ministry for those unwilling to accept women as priests and bishops.


    Resolution #1 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference revealed the depth of the divisions that were occurring. The bishops could speak openly of “the present impaired nature of communion.” If women were ordained as bishops, this would throw the problem into “sharper focus.” They asked that provinces respect the decisions of other provinces, whether they accepted them or not, and maintain “the highest possible degree of communion with the provinces which differ.” The Archbishop of Canterbury was asked to appoint a commission to keep track of developments. Meanwhile, all were told of the need “to exercise sensitivity, patience and pastoral care towards all concerned.” But bishops facing intractable divisions were “encouraged to seek continuing dialogue with, and make pastoral provision for, those clergy and congregations whose opinions differ from those of the bishop, in order to maintain the unity of the diocese.” How separate pastoral provision would maintain unity was not explained.

    Polygamy continued to present a problem. The bishops were less ready to restrict the access of polygamists to the sacraments than their predecessors a century earlier who had been willing to baptize only wives of polygamists and even those only “in some cases.” Now the bishops felt that “a polygamist who responds to the Gospel and wishes to join the Anglican Church may be baptized and confirmed with his believing wives and children” if they promise not to marry again so long as any of his wives were alive and if the local community were agreeable.

    As the Anglican Communion became more truly a global community, the conference found itself asked to express opinions on the situations in Namibia, Lebanon, Palestine, Northern Ireland, military governments in Latin America, and Sharia Law in the Sudan. Naturally, also, as ecumenical relationships grew, the conference needed to express its opinion of relationships with Baptist, Orthodox, Roman, Pentecostal, Methodist, Reformed, United, and Lutheran Churches. Small wonder, then, that in spite of the request made by the previous conference for “dispassionate study” of homosexuality, there was no resolution on that subject in 1988.


    By 1998, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate was a fait accompli.

    Several women had already been consecrated bishops and were present at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Photo courtesy Louie Crew.

    And small wonder, then, that the Lambeth Conference of 1998 found itself involved in prolonged and angry debate on the subject of sexuality. As to homosexuals, the bishops committed themselves “to listen to the experience of homosexual persons” and “assure them that they are loved by God and . . . full members of the Body of Christ.” Homosexual practice was rejected “as incompatible with Scripture,” but “irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex” was condemned. Was it implied that there could be rational fear of homosexuals? A resolution referring to homosexuality as a “kind of sexual brokenness” and calling on bishops who ordain homosexual persons to repent was defeated. However, the bishops found that they could not “advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.”

    But how was unity to be preserved where such divisions existed – or how might it be regained? The resolutions concerning respect for diocesan boundaries first adopted over a century earlier were reaffirmed. Bishops could not be a sign of unity while encouraging division. But the bishops seemed to be looking for stronger leadership and central authority. The conference noted that the primates had begun to meet separately and expressed the hope that the primates might “exercise an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters.” The primates should meet more regularly, the bishops believed, but the Anglican Consultative Council was fine as it was and should not be asked to do more. The bishops seemed to defer to the primates, whose meetings “should carry moral authority calling for ready acceptance throughout the Communion.”


    A summary of such a tumultuous history is all too likely to reflect the concerns of the moment and the viewpoint of the individual historian. This review has focused on two central issues: changing understandings of gender and sexuality, and the balance between diversity and unity. In recent years the emergence of new “instruments of unity” has raised new questions as to the relative significance of Lambeth, primates, and the Consultative Council with a critical underlying issue of the relative power of clergy and lay people. [Sidenote: We have also published Archbishop Peers’ comments on the first meeting of the primates in 1978. Archbishop Daniel Coggan presided both at the Lambeth Conference and the 1978 primates meeting.] In regard to the concerns of the moment, the initial hesitancy of the bishops meeting at Lambeth to pronounce on anything at all rapidly shifted until, in the latter part of the 20th century, there were few things on which the conference did not have an opinion. The initial insistence on dispersed authority left a vacuum which the primates now seem determined to fill.

    In regard to gender and sexuality, it is remarkable to observe the radical change in the positions the bishops have taken. In 1888, polygamists were not generally to be baptized; in 1988, they could be. In 1920, prophylactics were an “invitation to vice”; by 1958 they were “acceptable.” Until 1948, divorced persons were never to be remarried in church and those who remarried in civil ceremonies were not to be admitted to communion; by 1958 this frequently stated position had been replaced by the suggestion that a procedure for defining marital status was needed and the separate churches and provinces should work on it. No more has been heard of that, and the Anglican provinces have found ways not only to give communion to the divorced and remarried, but also to perform second and even third marriages in the church.

    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.