At the end of this month, bishops from (most of the) Anglican world will gather at Canterbury Cathedral, by the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, for the Lambeth Conference. It is the occasion for conflictual new stories, pageantry, and pandemic anxiety. In this blog post I want to set the event in a deeper context, both historically and theologically.
Since the beginning, Christians have gathered to take council, and especially when there has been conflict over some teaching or practice, the precedent being the Council in Jerusalem over the inclusion of the Gentiles on an equal footing (Acts 15). The Creed we say at the Eucharist is the product of a council in Nicaea in the 4th Century, the unification of the English Church, Celtic and Roman, a product of a council in Whitby (at the urging of abbess Hilda) in the late 7th Century, the crisis of multiple popes in the late middle ages leading to a series of councils. Even the Reformers, often seen as the cause of the end of the conciliar impulse, hopes for a worldwide council to settle their disagreements with Rome. In modern times, the Second Vatican Council in many of our memories led to a Roman Mass in English. Gathering in council, while sporadic, has taken place throughout Christian history.
The second key background concept is that of primacy, of ancient sees of particular prominence and leadership. In England that was first of all the see of Canterbury, of Augustine himself, sent by Pope Gregory to evangelize the Saxons. Continued to be a focus on unity, through the Reformation period with Thomas Cranmer, the author of our prayer book, himself. Primacy is meant to be a reminder of the apostolic source of the faith, its continuity, and its gathered unity. (There are the same purposes for any episcopate, only intensified in these venerable instances). One can easily see how societies with a strong sense of honoring their forebears, of a tradition of wisdom, and of continuity, would immediately see the value of primacy. It is no accident that the Archbishop of Canterbury summons the bishops into conclave.
But what of our own Anglican history? The emergence of a worldwide fellowship of Churches is simultaneous with the beginnings of a gathering of all bishops in communion with Canterbury. The presenting issues were directly related to younger churches and their ties to the Church of England itself. What if a bishop in south Africa taught something deemed to be beyond the pale, in this case having to do with polygamy (the Colenso case), and what if as a result there were contesting claims to be the Anglican Church there? A struggle ensued about whether there could be an actual synod with decision-making power (the Anglo Catholics were for it, the evangelicals against). A compromise was reached, in which counsel and consensus would be sought, though each national church would retain its autonomy. The Conference would depend on bishops listening to, and be persuaded by, one another. Over the years, the prevailing views of issues like polygamy or divorce was influenced. But the theological intent without compelling power has been knit into the Anglican way ever since. It is easy to see the importance and the difficulty coming out of this history for our own day.