Nearly six hundred purple-shirted Anglican bishops will gather this week in England for the Lambeth Conference , the decennial meeting of all the bishops in the global Anglican Communion. Of course, there would have been well over eight hundred, but for the fact that the bishops of five national Anglican provinces¯about a quarter of Anglican bishops overall¯decided to stay home.
Thats a sadness, for the average Anglican today (as Gregory Cameron has pointed out ), is a black woman in Africa, under the age of thirty, who supports three children on a salary of two dollars a day and finds the story of her life written in the pages of the Old Testament. The average Anglican represented at Lambeth is more likely a white man from New Jersey with a three-car garage who supposes that the world in which he lives is described quite well by the pages of the New York Times .
Above all else, the Lambeth bishops must show themselves to be an effective instrument in service of the faith and unity of the Anglican Communion. Essentially, the bishops must give a clear articulation of their common mind on the issues that presently threaten the Anglican world with schism, and they must present a viable and biblically faithful way forward that can be pursued by the majority of Anglicans with vigor and conviction.
While doing so, they must reassure those concerned about over-centralization that the need for unity in fundamentals is by no means a threat to the long-standing Anglican tradition of freedom in matters accessory to the creedal faith. If this is done, a great victory will be won for the Christian witness and catholic substance of Anglicanism. If it is not, the downward spiral of Anglicanism into heresy and fragmentation will likely continue.
Unfortunately, there are several factors in play that will make the Lambeth bishops task very difficult. Most fundamentally, the bishops will have to confront a theology, held by many of their own members, which places little value on doctrinal unity and scriptural authority and instead exalts near-unbounded freedom and diversity in matters of faith and ethics. Liberal Anglican modernists, many of them from North America, believe that doctrinal latitude is central to what it means to be Anglican. They argue that the 2003 consecration to the episcopate of Gene Robinson, an actively gay man, was fully in keeping with Anglican tradition, even though the 1998 Lambeth conference had held homosexual practice to be incompatible with scriptural norms. Several American and Canadian bishops continue to publicly bless same-sex unions, in defiance of the repeated requests of the international organs of Anglicanism and the canons of their own churches.
This approach to Church teaching has repeatedly been criticized as leading to a loss of doctrinal integrity and coherence, perhaps most trenchantly in Stephen Sykes’ book, The Integrity of Anglicanism, written for the occasion of Lambeth 1978. Sykes argued that, historically, Anglicanism has committed itself to a good deal of doctrinal content—to the Scriptures as the rule and ultimate standard of the faith, the catholic creeds, the historic episcopate, and the dominical sacraments.
But the inroads made by theological modernism have made it unclear that Anglicans actually hold to these fundamental points. As Rowan Williams recently put it, the crisis is such that Anglicans are no longer sure that they can recognize each others’ ministries, or even that they are speaking the same language of faith. If the bishops at Lambeth in 2008 are unable to state that such incoherence cannot be the basis of Anglicanism, then the Communion’s devolution will continue—and the expansion of this sort of doctrinal free-for-all is precisely what many liberal bishops (particularly those from North America) hope to see.
Making the task more difficult will be the sheer number of liberals present. It is no small thing that a quarter of all Anglican bishops have absented themselves from the conference. The absent Global South bishops represent nearly 40 million Anglicans, out of a total of 77 million worldwide. Of the 37 million that will be represented at Lambeth, 26 million are baptized members of the Church of England, only 1 million of whom are regular worshipers. American bishops alone will comprise nearly 25 percent of the attendance at Lambeth—this notwithstanding the fact that the Episcopal Church’s membership of 2.2 million is less than 3 percent of the total Communion.
Perhaps making their task yet more challenging is the structure of the conference itself . Unlike the previous thirteen meetings, this year’s Lambeth conference will not feature large sessions ordered toward producing resolutions. It will instead consist of small discussion groups (called indaba , a Zulu term for “gathering”) aimed toward the eventual production of a communal “Reflections” document.
Some have been skeptical of the intent and effect of the new design. There may well be sound reasons for the change; it can be difficult for all voices to be heard in enormous parliamentary sessions. But some are concerned that the new design will actually have the effect of preventing any outcomes such as the ones at the 1998 meeting, where the numerical strength of Global South bishops led to the passage of resolutions that were unpalatable to Northern liberals.
By dividing the bishops into small groups, and by emphasizing the discussion of issues ordered toward producing reflections, the conference may mute or disperse the voice of the majority on any given issue. Anglicans have long debated the normative status of Lambeths resolutions, and the theological import of reflections produced by indaba groups will be of even more peculiar status.
If the orthodox bishops at Lambeth are to be successful, they must find a way past several obstacles to produce a clear and forceful statement of where Anglicans stand and where to go from here. There will be opportunities to discuss pressing issues¯such as human sexuality, womens ordination, the role of the episcopate in the church, and the proposed Anglican Covenant¯and the orthodox bishops must take full advantage of them. Liberal bishops hope that Lambeth will produce nothing of substance, and the boycotting conservative bishops fear they are right. The orthodox bishops who decided to attend this years meeting must prove both sides wrong.
Two weeks ago, many conservative Anglicans met at GAFCON to produce their own statement of doctrinal foundations and to begin their own way forward. It is not difficult to see why many faithful Anglicans felt that such a move was needed. But it should be no less difficult to see why the GAFCON path will only lead to further schism. In essence, if it is followed as an alternative to the existing structures of Anglicanism, it amounts to the creation of a new evangelical church in the Anglican tradition. Many orthodox Anglicans will not in good conscience be able to join them, and where there is one split, more are sure to follow.
The orthodox Lambeth bishops have long been proposing their own way forward. Their much-discussed Anglican Covenant is intended to both articulate the fundamental articles of Anglican faith and to create an ongoing process by which the Anglican churches can explore new doctrinal paths within the bounds of ordered communal discernment. The recently unveiled Communion Partners plan is intended to put flesh on the Covenant proposal by uniting orthodox American dioceses and parishes together, and with supportive primates overseas, in a common commitment to work for reform within the existing structures of Anglicanism. If the orthodox Lambeth bishops hope to convince their GAFCON fellows that there is indeed a way forward that does not involve massive schism, they must demonstrate that they do in fact have a viable alternative in the Anglican Covenant and the Communion Partners plan, and that they intend to pursue it with vigor.
In the end, the Lambeth bishops must show the world a way forward for the Anglican Communion that rejects the easy compromise of doctrinal and ecclesial muddle while eschewing the route of quick separation from all but a narrow band of the like-minded. They need to demonstrate to the Church and the world that Anglicans are truly committed both to the gospel revealed by God in Jesus Christ and to walking together in charity and peace. Anglicans around the world will be praying for their bishops these next two weeks. The bishops know well how much they need it.
Jordan Hylden, a former junior fellow at First Things , is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School.