For the first time in living memory the 1998 Lambeth Conference saw the outright defeat of the revisionists. By an overwhelming majority the assembled bishops voted to uphold traditional and scriptural teaching.
The revisionists, it seems, are still reeling from the extent of, as well as the fact of, their notable defeat. And naturally they are crying ‘foul’.
It was all, they are claiming, a sinister plot in which conservative Americans (the American Anglican Council, the Ekklesia Society and Bishop Stanton of Dallas) bought the votes of bewildered, unaware and ‘superstitious’ Africans.
Anyone in Canterbury who experienced at first hand the genuine anger of African and Asian bishops (Duncan Buchanan of Johannesburg, who chaired the relevant Section, declared himself ‘traumatized’ by the depth of feeling he encountered) knows how far that is from the truth. The AAC and Ekklesia were both present in force at the fringe of the Conference, aiding and abetting. But they did not create the tensions, or even orchestrate them.
Casual observers could be forgiven for mistaking the Lambeth ’98 row as one about homosexuality: that was certainly the presenting issue. But Dick Holloway’s comments afterwards (quirky as ever, perceptive as ever) give a more balanced picture.
Holloway was aware that scriptural interpretation and authority were at the heart of the matter. Lambeth, he claimed, was a victory for ‘fundamentalism’; for a mode of scriptural exegesis which, though consistent with traditional Anglican teaching, he could no longer recognise as Anglican.
Certainly it was the very basic and ‘fundamental’ forces thrown into opposition in this conflict which accounted for the highly emotive, explicitly sexual language of the defeated. Holloway told The Daily Telegraph that he felt ‘assaulted’ throughout the three-week conference. ‘I felt violated and I felt lynched’, he said.
Let no one be mistaken. The Anglican Communion at present embraces two quite distinct religions neither of which can ultimately tolerate the continued existence of the other in the same ecclesial body.
On the one side are those who receive the words of scripture as definitive and normative; for them the ‘deciding moment’ is that of the Incarnation. On the other side are those for whom the ‘deciding moment’ is the present, for whom Holy Writ is an historical curiosity, and who reject both Incarnation and Atonement as ‘barbarian’ notions which have outlived their usefulness.
The paradox is that (to deflect attention from their absolutist reductionism) those who reject scripture and tradition call themselves ‘liberals’, and dub their opponents ‘fundamentalists’.
In fact, of course, few things could be more rigid, fundamentalist and non-negotiable than the so-called liberal agenda. As in the matter of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate, of homosexual ‘marriage’, and of the ordination of people in same sex unions, they act before they consul; dictate where they cannot negotiate; cry foul when in debate they are defeated; and never take no for an answer.
The moral conclusions of a debate or a Conference can never be implemented in a vacuum. Such is certainly the case with the recent statement on human sexuality of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Every appeal to scripture and tradition must be seen to be consistent and wholehearted.
We need, then, to remind ourselves that Resolution 1.10 of Lambeth ’98 (however the press may have interpreted and portrayed it) was not, first and foremost, about same sex relationships. It was about marriage.
‘This Conference…in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.’
Arguably it is with marriage, in the societies of both the developed and the developing worlds, that any moral crusade needs to begin.
Adultery, divorce, non-marital co-habitation and casual heterosexual promiscuity are, in every society, far more prevalent than homosexual practice; and arguably far more damaging to the fabric of those societies. In Western Europe and America, where the case for homosexual equality is pressed with the greatest vigour, divorce is endemic and marital infidelity is rapidly becoming routine.
The danger is obvious: that homosexuals could become the scapegoats of a Church which passionately wants to seem both scriptural and traditionalist, but is nevertheless reluctant to tackle its own most intractable moral problem.
Divorced and remarried bishops and clergy are now commonplace. (Bishop Righter, whose trial for the ordination of a practising homosexual made headlines in every country, had divorced and remarried with impunity several times.) Divorce has affected virtually every family in the land, from to Windsors to the Careys. And almost any form of marital discipline or ecclesiastical sanction is now viewed by the majority as antiquarian and unenforceable.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was clearly pleased with the outcome of the Lambeth Conference and its controversial resolution. It had, he implied, reaffirmed standards of scriptural fidelity which his Archiepiscopal office exists to safeguard and uphold.
Now let him demonstrate the even-handedness of that fidelity. We look for a new rigour in the Primate’s attitude to marriage – a rigour which alone can reinforce and give coherence to his much-publicised stance on same sex relationships.
If there is not such a renewed emphasis, the homosexual community will legitimately be entitled to claim prejudice and homophobia.
The Eames Commission, set up in response to a resolution of Lambeth 1988 has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Though Mary Tanner argues elsewhere in this edition that it has been a moderating influence on those provinces which have ordained women, the evidence (as Geoffrey Kirk points out) is sketchy in the extreme.
We need, then, to welcome with cautious enthusiasm the commendation of the Eames Report and the work of its monitoring group, which forms Resolution III.4 of the 1998 Conference.
That resolution is the more noticeable for having been moved (and most vigorously opposed) by women bishops. The Canadian Affirming Catholic Victoria Matthews proposed it, and the chain-smoking, curmudgeonly suffragan of Massachusetts opposed it.
Bishop Barbara Harris, let the reader understand, was only being consistent. She was the crucifer at the illegal Philadelphia ordinations of women in 1974 and has never pretended to view the issue as anything other than a self-evident truth.
Bishop Matthews is a reasonable woman who hopes that others are persuadable. Bishop Harris presents the authentic voice of the ideologically intractable.
The smart money is on Bishops Babs.