canterbury.jpgUnity and Diversity in the Lambeth Conference
by Christopher L. Web



The Archbishop of Canterbury has sent out invitations to the bishops of the Anglican Communion to meet together at Lambeth this summer. It’s the fourteenth time that has happened, and the second time that there has been a serious question as to who might come. The first time a bare majority arrived: 76 out of 144. Many of those absent in 1868, including the Archbishop of York, had serious questions as to whether it was a good idea. Would they be creating a new center of authority? Would they be setting something in motion that might have unforeseen consequences?

In 2008 over 800 invitations have been sent, but it seems likely that a significant number will choose not to attend. Be that as it may, it seems like a good time to ask how we got here. Where did Lambeth begin? What was the original purpose? What has it accomplished? Are we over-hyping this thing? What follows is one attempt to sum it up. It is not intended as a full history of Lambeth, but a summary of the origins and main developments that may be instructive today.

Part I: The Beginning

  • No binding decisions to be made
  • Invitations to “all avowedly in communion”
  • No defining of doctrine
  • Respect for each other
  • No ministry in another jurisdiction without consent

It was the Bishop of Vermont who first suggested a conference of Anglican bishops; but it was an appeal from the Canadian bishops, who saw the political unity between their country and England beginning to dissolve, that brought about the first gathering. The Archbishop of Canterbury was nervous about it. Who knew what might happen if you brought together so many bishops, or what the consequences might be for the powers of individual bishops and archbishops?

“It should be distinctly understood,” said Archbishop Longley, “that at this meeting no declaration of faith shall be made, and no decision come to which shall affect generally the interests of the Church, but that we shall meet together for brotherly counsel and encouragement…. I should refuse to convene any assembly which pretended to enact any canons, or affected to make any decisions binding on the Church.” Nonetheless, the Archbishop of York and several others from his province refused to come, and the Dean of Westminster refused to let the Abbey be used for the closing service, citing (among other reasons) “the presence of prelates not belonging to our Church.” [Photo at right: Archbishop of Canterbury C.T. Longley taken in 1864 (from the Lambeth Conference website). Photo Credit: Lambeth Palace.]

Hesitantly, however, Archbishop Longley sent out invitations to “all who are avowedly in communion with our Church,” assuring them that “such a meeting would not be competent to make declarations or lay down definitions on points of doctrine. But united worship and common counsels would,” he hoped, “tend to maintain the unity of the faith.” 76 of the 144 bishops invited made their way to England in the autumn of 1868 and heard the Archbishop assure them that, “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 spite of all these protestations, when the bishops gathered, the Archbishop of Capetown asked for a change in the program so that he could have advice on dealing with a bishop in his province who was accused of heresy. In spite of “the strenuous protest of several bishops,” the conference appointed a committee to look into the matter and report back. The suggestion that a “Court of Appeal” be created to deal with such matters was also referred to a committee. When the committees reported back three months later, the Lambeth archives states, fewer than twenty bishops were still available to deal with them, so the reports were “received” and referred to a future conference for action.

When the Canadian bishops asked for a second conference, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait, was clear that such problems should be avoided. “There is no intention whatever,” he said, “on the part of anybody to gather together the Bishops of the Anglican Church for the sake of defining any matter of doctrine. Our doctrines are contained in our formularies, and our formularies are interpreted by the proper judicial authorities, and there is no intention whatever at any such gathering that questions of doctrine should be submitted for interpretation in any future Lambeth Conference any more than they were at the previous Lambeth Conference.” [Tait photograph (at left) courtesy]

It was at that second conference, in 1878, that the Archbishop of York (William IX Thomson) preached a sermon that is still relevant in 2008. He drew on the story in Acts of the way in which Peter and Paul had argued in the early days of the church, and said, “It may be permitted us reverently to question whether the pulse of divine life in the Church has been hastened by one beat, by the violence of the zealous, who have thought well to be angry for the cause of God. Through strife, but not by strife, the Church has passed upon her way.” [The photo of Archbishop Thomson, at right, is from 1878.]

Also still relevant in 2008 were resolutions about unity within the Anglican Communion. It should be, the bishops said, “distinctly recognised and set forth, as of great importance for the maintenance of union among the Churches of our Communion” that “the duly certified action of every national or particular Church . . . should be respected by all the other Churches, and by their individual members” and that “no bishop or other clergyman of any other Church should exercise his functions within [some other] diocese without the consent of the bishop thereof.”

Each member church should be free to govern its own life, but always remembering the other churches. That tension between freedom and unity was recognized early in relation to worship which, it was agreed, was central to the life of the Communion. While the bishops agreed that there should be great freedom for churches to revise the Book of Common Prayer, they also cautioned that too great variation would imperil the Communion’s unity.

The proposal made ten years before, for a “Court of Appeal,” was dealt with by a committee which announced that they were “not prepared to recommend that there should be any one central tribunal,” but rather that each province should deal with its own issues. Where a province was unable to do so, however, they agreed there might be a committee of five Archbishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, to review the case and offer an opinion. In keeping with the preliminary guidelines that ruled out doctrinal definitions, the report was not officially adopted, but rather incorporated in an encyclical letter approved by those in attendance.

Having weathered two conferences without committing themselves to much of anything, the bishops did, however, express “the hope that the problem, hitherto unsolved, of combining together for consultation representatives of Churches so differently situated and administered, may find, in the providential course of events, its own solution.” They therefore ventured to suggest that conferences might “be invested in future with somewhat larger liberty as to the initiation and selection of subjects for discussion.”

“Differently situated and administered” though the dioceses were from which the bishops came, it was still assumed that they had something in common besides Anglicanism: the Archbishop of Canterbury greeted them as coming “from all continents, and seas, and shores, where the English tongue is spoken.” Yet even then, such a greeting might have been questioned since the Bishops of Shanghai and Haiti were among those present, to say nothing of bishops from Wales and India. Overlooking that fact, the conference arranged for its encyclical letter to be translated only into Latin and Greek!

Note: Part 2 of Christopher Webber’s essay will be published shortly. In it, Webber considers the Lambeth Conferences of 1888 to 1920.

About the Author:   The Rev. Christopher L. Webber is a graduate of Princeton and the General Theological Seminary where he earned two degrees and was awarded an honorary doctorate.  He is the author of a number of books including The Vestry Handbook, Welcome to the Episcopal Church, Beyond Beowulf (the first-ever sequel to the first English saga), and the recently re-issued Re-Inventing Marriage, as well as a new supplement to the last title, called Same Sex Marriage and the Bible (available from his website).  In a ministry of fifty years and counting, Fr. Webber has served parishes in inner city, suburban, rural, and overseas communities.  He is currently serving as a supply priest in the Diocese of Connecticut. Webber has written for The Episcopal Majority before.  See Listening, Causes and Effects, A Certain Madness, The Conscience of a Conservative, and 1984 in the Episcopal Church.

In this essay, he includes several quotations from the Lambeth Conference archives, which use “English” rather than “American” spelling (e.g., “recognise” rather than “recognize”). The quotations appear here as they do in the originals.

About the Sources: Quotations here have been drawn from two websites and a book:





In addition, an archive of Lambeth resolutions is available at the Lambeth Conference archive.



Part II: Broader Agendas
by Christopher L. Webber
  • Resolutions adopted on church and social issues
  • Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral adopted
  • Definitions of “full communion” and “essentials of faith” not adopted
  • Sexual issues raised: divorce and contraception condemned
  • Women to be admitted to all lay ministries

This mid-18th century painting by Samuel Scott shows Lambeth Palace from across the River Thames. The image appears here, courtesy of the Society of Genealogists.


By the time a third Lambeth Conference was called for, the idea of such meetings had become a tradition. Therefore, the agenda in 1888 was much bolder than that of the first two conferences, ranging from socialism to polygamy and including “Authoritative standards of Doctrine and Worship” as well as “Mutual relations of Dioceses and Branches of the Anglican Communion.” Now, for the first time, resolutions were brought before the bishops and officially adopted. The bishops acted not only upon resolutions having to do with the life of the church, but also with the civil societies in which they functioned.

“Intemperance” had become an issue in the growing cities of England and America, and the bishops suggested that governments could help by restricting the number of places where alcohol could be drunk and the hours when such places were open. In the Anglican spirit of balance, they also condemned the fanaticism of many prohibitionists as sometimes “uncharitable and presumptuous.” Now that resolutions were being adopted officially, disagreement became visible. Resolutions on not admitting polygamists to baptism found from 20% to 40% of the bishops in opposition.

The life and unity of the church were a primary concern. The principles laid down ten years earlier, that each national church should respect the work of the others and that bishops should not enter the dioceses of others without permission, were said to have been “neglected,” and therefore were reaffirmed. Statements had been made in the past about not “defining any matter of doctrine,” but it was this conference that accepted the principles known now as “The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral” as a sufficient basis for Christian unity.

The conference also suggested that it would be useful for the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a small committee to draw up a simple statement of the teaching of the Anglican Communion on such subjects as the Catholic Faith, the Holy Scriptures, the Sacraments, the Forms of Prayer and Liturgy in use in the Anglican Churches, the relation of the Anglican Churches to the Church of Rome, the Churches of the East, and other Christian Churches and Societies, and the relation of the teaching of the Church of Christ to human knowledge. [Edward White Benson (depicted at left) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883-1896.]

The conference agreed that the 39 Articles could well be amended in some particulars. Such a statement surely went well beyond the limits laid down for the first two conferences.

The conference also stated its opinion via reports received and included by reference in an encyclical letter on divorce and polygamy, among other things, in spite of the fact that there was considerable dissent on both matters, ranging from almost a quarter to well over a third of the bishops present. A long report on “purity” was adopted, calling on bishops and churches to work for a reformation of manners in relation to marriage and sexual matters. The bishops were concerned, they said, to “guard the innocent, to punish the guilty, to rescue the fallen, to suppress the haunts of vice, and to remove temptation from our thoroughfares.”


In 1897, at the fourth Lambeth Conference, the bishops set out to define themselves by referring to letters of the earlier conferences which had been addressed to “Archbishops, Bishops Metropolitan, and other Bishops of the Holy Catholic Church, in full communion with the Church of England, one hundred in number, all exercising superintendence over Dioceses, or lawfully commissioned to exercise Episcopal functions . . . .” The issue of freedom and unity was addressed again in the statement that: “it is important that, so far as possible, the Church should be adapted to local circumstances, and the people brought to feel in all ways that no burdens in the way of foreign customs are laid upon them, and nothing is required of them but what is of the essence of the faith, and belongs to the due order of the Catholic Church.” The first of these statements, of course, left undefined what was meant by being “in full communion with the Church of England,” and the second left open “what is of the essence of the faith, and belongs to the due order of the Catholic Church.” Over a century later, these questions remain unanswered.


The first conference of the 20th century, in 1908, found sexual matters claiming a central place on the agenda. The sanctity of marriage was seen to be threatened, and the bishops called on all “right-thinking and clean-living men and women” to defend the institution. Divorce, except for adultery and fornication, was not to be tolerated. The bishops declared that those who were divorced, even if “innocent,” could not marry again in the church. That resolution was carried by a vote of 87-84. They declared, though, that the “innocent party,” if re-married in a civil ceremony, might be re-admitted to communion. Birth control and abortion were condemned as well.

The 1908 Lambeth Conference agreed that the “ministry of the laity requires to be more widely recognised.” However, when they came to deal with the creation of a consultative council (called for by the previous conference), they resolved that such a council should be composed of 18 bishops chosen by the various provinces.

[Sidenote: The idea of a “consultative council” appears as early as the call at the 1868 gathering for a “Spiritual Court of Appeal,” but no such “court” was created. In 1878, there was a suggestion of a “Voluntary Board of Arbitration,” but again no such board seems to have been put in place. There was a call in 1897 for the Archbishop of Canterbury to create a “consultative council,” but still there is no evidence that it was done. It seems there was some continuing interest in having a tool available to resolve disputes, not a body meeting at regular intervals; but no such group was created, and apparently no disputes were referred. All these proposals, of course, were to include only bishops and usually archbishops. The distinguished American Bishop of Olympia, Stephen Bayne, who became the first Anglican Executive Officer, created what he called an Anglican Consultative Council after the 1958 Lambeth Conference to work with him, but there is no indication that such a group was formally constituted as an authorized gathering until 1968.]


The First World War made it necessary to postpone the next Lambeth Conference until 1920, and the war had begun to change settled views on a number of issues. Women, said the 1920 conference, should be admitted to all councils in the church in which lay men served. Here the conference was, indeed, staking out new territory. It took the Episcopal Church in the U.S. another fifty years to get itself in line with Lambeth and admit women as deputies to its General Convention.

On other matters of gender, however, the bishops at Lambeth were much more hesitant. The use of contraception was seen as a “grave danger – physical, moral and religious,” and the distribution of prophylactics was seen as “an invitation to vice.” The bishops believed that the use of such materials “threatens the race.” An echo of this viewpoint might be found in the response of the Church in Nigeria to the request of the 1998 Lambeth Conference that the Communion should listen to homosexuals as the Nigerian Church stated that such practice “threatens . . . the continuation of the race.” The bishops called on Christians everywhere to bring pressure on governments to end “the open or secret sale of contraceptives, and the continued existence of brothels.”