Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Lambeth: Showdown or No Show?

The Archbishop of Canterbury sent out invitations to Lambeth in May. At that time, here is how he described the plans for this 2008 Conference:

… it will also be an opportunity for all of us to strengthen our commitment to God’s mission and to our common life as a Communion. In connection with this latter point, we shall be devoting some time to thinking about the proposals for an Anglican Covenant, and about other ways in which we can deepen our sense of a common calling for us as a coherent and effective global Church family.”

“The Conference is a place where experience of our living out of God’s mission can be shared. It is a place where we may be renewed for effective ministry. And it is a place where we can try and get more clarity about the limits of our diversity and the means of deepening our Communion, so we can speak together with conviction and clarity to the world. It is an occasion in which the Archbishop of Canterbury exercises his privilege of calling his colleagues together, not to legislate but to discover and define something more about our common identity through prayer, listening to God’s Word and shared reflection. It is an occasion to rediscover the reality of the Church itself as a worldwide community united by the call and grace of Christ."

Mindful of the speculation that has surrounded the issuing of invitations to the Conference Dr Williams recalls that invitations are issued on a personal basis by the Archbishop of Canterbury and that “the Lambeth Conference has no ‘constitution’ or formal powers; it is not a formal Synod or Council of the Communion”, and that invitation to the Conference has never been seen as “a certificate of doctrinal orthodoxy”...
No legislation. No formal powers. Not a Synod or Council.

Here are some of the descriptions of Lambeth from Dr. Williams' most recent Advent Letter:

...While argument continues about exactly how much force is possessed by a Resolution of the Lambeth Conference such as the 1998 Lambeth Conference Resolution on sexuality, it is true, as I have repeatedly said, that the 1998 Resolution is the only point of reference clearly agreed by the overwhelming majority of the Communion...

...I have underlined in my letter of invitation that acceptance of the invitation must be taken as implying willingness to work with those aspects of the Conference's agenda that relate to implementing the recommendations of Windsor, including the development of a Covenant. The Conference needs of course to be a place where diversity of opinion can be expressed, and there is no intention to foreclose the discussion - for example - of what sort of Covenant document is needed. But I believe we need to be able to take for granted a certain level of willingness to follow through the question of how we avoid the present degree of damaging and draining tension arising again. I intend to be in direct contact with those who have expressed unease about this, so as to try and clarify how deep their difficulties go with accepting or adopting the Conference's agenda.

How then should the Lambeth Conference be viewed? It is not a canonical tribunal, but neither is it merely a general consultation. It is a meeting of the chief pastors and teachers of the Communion, seeking an authoritative common voice. It is also a meeting designed to strengthen and deepen the sense of what the episcopal vocation is.

Some reactions to my original invitation have implied that meeting for prayer, mutual spiritual enrichment and development of ministry is somehow a way of avoiding difficult issues. On the contrary: I would insist that only in such a context can we usefully address divisive issues. If, as the opening section of this letter claimed, our difficulties have their root in whether or how far we can recognise the same gospel and ministry in diverse places and policies, we need to engage more not less directly with each other. This is why I have repeatedly said that an invitation to Lambeth does not constitute a certificate of orthodoxy but simply a challenge to pray seriously together and to seek a resolution that will be as widely owned as may be.

And this is also why I have said that the refusal to meet can be a refusal of the cross - and so of the resurrection. We are being asked to see our handling of conflict and potential division as part of our maturing both as pastors and as disciples. I do not think this is either an incidental matter or an evasion of more basic questions...

...I also intend to convene a small group of primates and others, whose task will be, in close collaboration with the primates, the Joint Standing Committee, the Covenant Design Group and the Lambeth Conference Design Group, to work on the unanswered questions arising from the inconclusive evaluation of the primates to New Orleans and to take certain issues forward to Lambeth...
There will be no legislation at Lambeth, yet a previous Lambeth resolution (one whose method of passage remains under question) is used as "the only point of reference." Lambeth has no formal powers, but its pronouncements will represent "an authoritative common voice." It is not a Synod or Council, yet "the refusal to meet can be a refusal of the cross - and so of the resurrection."

On the agenda will be "implementing the recommendations of Windsor", the Anglican Covenant, and "to take certain issues forward" in regards to TEC's House of Bishops' New Orleans statement. Yet this will not involve legislative sessions, or use of formal power, and is not to be understood as an "official" council of the Church?

So, will this be a significant gathering or not? Let's face it; just a few years ago, the common understanding of what it meant to be an "Anglican" was that your bishop received an invitation to Lambeth. Even though that definition has been questioned in the last few years, this meeting of all the Anglican bishops has always been considered an important event. In light of the matters on the agenda, the 2008 Lambeth must be considered a very important moment for our Church.

Yet, it appears that some will not attend, because there will be those present with whom they disagree. Instead, they will hold their own "alternative Council":

Conservative Anglican leaders are secretly planning a meeting next summer for the hundreds of bishops expected to defy the Archbishop of Canterbury by boycotting the Lambeth Conference, The Daily Telegraph has learned.

The unprecedented event will be widely seen as an "alternative Lambeth", further damaging Dr Rowan Williams's hopes of averting a formal schism over homosexuals.

Aides of the Archbishop said that any such gathering, which is due to be held just before the official conference, would be perceived as a symbol of division and would send out a "negative" message.

It will also be portrayed as a rebuff to the Archbishop's plea last week for all Anglican leaders to attend the Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade meeting of the Church's 880 bishops...
There are also those within TEC who are wondering about the wisdom of sending our bishops to Lambeth, such as Michael Hopkins, rector of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene in Rochester, New York:

...What if the table is in itself so distorted that nothing good can come of it? What if the table is, by design, not credible. And it is clearly not given that despite three previous Conference’s promise to listen to the experience of lesbian and gay persons, there is no evidence whatsoever that the next Conference intends to do so. If nothing else, the one person who could be there as an active participant in such a listening process from the side of gay and lesbian persons is not being allowed to participate. If our bishops’ are to go to the Conference are they willing in no uncertain terms, to protest strongly this state of affairs and state that they will do everything in their power to see that the conversation happens at the Conference?

Second of all, is not the Conference a set up. The Archbishop says in his letter that the primary purpose of the Conference will be to work on the Anglican Covenant, presumably to bring it to a final draft. Presumably the Covenant will then be presented to the Provinces of the Communion for their constitutional assent. Is there any reason at all to trust this process? Is not, rather, the evidence that this Covenant will be seen after the Conference as the norm for the Communion as Lambeth 1.10 has come to be seen? Will not the Covenant be presented to the Provinces as a litmus test, i.e., vote for it or you’re out of Communion? Does not the trajectory of the Archbishop’s own writing not lead in this direction? Do we really want to participate in our own exclusion? Are our bishop’s so certain that they can effect the Covenant language so that it is not innocuous to our constitutional make-up as TEC? Do they not remember how out-voted they were in 1998, despite all their efforts to bring something more palatable to the Conference (the report of the sub-section)?
In my mind, the exclusion of Bp. Robinson would make it impossible for me to accept such an invitation. I would simply not go, on that point alone. If Bp. Robinson does attend Lambeth, it will be as a "guest," meaning no voice and no vote. If our bishops choose to attend, possibly they could notify Canterbury that they will also be present as "guests"? This would certainly show solidarity with the people of New Hampshire, who have been excluded by Dr. Williams.

So, what do you think? How do you reconcile Dr. Williams' conflicted "no formal power/authoritative voice" message? Is Lambeth a set up for TEC? Should our bishops attend as guests with no voice or vote?

J.

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