Gregory Cameron on how the Lambeth Commission approached the task

I still remember the burning sensation of dry sherry going down the wrong way: my spluttering was caused by an unhelpful introduction by a friend – ‘Gregory’s the vicar looking after gay sex in the Anglican Church.’ Rather like Abba’s memorable hit about another Gregory – ‘Ra, Ra, Rasputin, Lover of a Russian Queen’ – the introduction was wrong on all counts.

The Lambeth Commission was established by the Archbishop of Canterbury following the meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion at Lambeth Palace (hence the name) in October 2003. That meeting, lest it be forgot, took place to enable the primates to take counsel together as they pondered reactions to the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop (Co-adjutor) of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church (USA). The primates made it quite clear that the issue they wanted addressed by the Commission centred on questions of communion, not sex. Given the standard of teaching adopted on human sexuality at the Lambeth Conference 1998, how could the Communion maintain the ‘highest degree of communion possible’ in the face of the consecration of a bishop whose lifestyle challenged that teaching. The situation in New Westminster, which up to that point had occupied much time in the councils of the Communion, was added to its work, but very much in the shadow of this new development.

The Archbishop of Canterbury set the Commission going with a clear mandate which did not include reconsideration of Lambeth 1.10; a chairman in the shape of Archbishop Robin Eames, who was getting used to be handed this sort of brief by now; and a twelve month deadline, which will just about have been met when the report is published on 18 October this year. Archbishop Robin called a small steering group together from the members and staff of the commission to assist him, and it was this group which quickly established the ‘architecture’ of the Commission’s work, balancing effectiveness against budget. The Anglican Communion Office found the money by juggling its commissions and committees – but even so, with a membership of seventeen from right across the globe, the Commission couldn’t afford to be profligate in meetings, locations or timetable. In the end, it was decided to hold three plenary residential sessions (with a lot of work going on between sessions). It was clear that at least one of those would have to be in North America. The Dean and Chapter of Saint George’s College in Windsor, and Dr Albert Gooch, Director of the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina, did a great deal to make meetings possible at their respective locations, and the Commission was on its way.

It became a fundamental principle that the Commission would seek to do its work in as transparent and open a way as possible: slightly at odds perhaps with the confidentiality that currently hangs perforce around its conclusions. The aspiration to openness and transparency was generated by the worldwide interest in the work of the Commission, and the technology that was available to resource its work. Evidence could be posted on the net for all to consider, submissions could be invited from all who cared to make comment. In the end, we received about two hundred and fifty submissions in this way. These came from individuals, societies and church organizations. It surprised me that the majority of those received in the early stages of the Commission’s life were overwhelmingly conservative in tone. The liberal voice seemed to take a while to realize that it was no good waiting for personalized invitations. Between the Kanuga and second Windsor meetings of the commission, the more liberal submissions poured in; to be balanced in the last week by a couple of hard-hitting conservative essays exploring questions of discipline and order. All these submissions were made available to the members of the Commission, although they tended to fall into three categories: long carefully considered ecclesiological arguments about the shape of the Communion, which would be included in the agenda for consideration by the commission in plenary session; shorter insightful pieces, often from individuals; and thirdly, rants on the sins, or otherwise, of homosexual practice. All submissions in both these last two categories were tabled to be read in the course of meetings, but considered in sessions through resumes of their main points, which were ably prepared by my colleague in the Ecumenical Department, the Revd Terrie Robinson. Provincial responses were garnered by questionnaire and personal request to the primates by Archbishop Robin.

Since the commission needed time for its own deliberations, there was less opportunity than ideal to hear directly from witnesses. Four locally-based theologians were invited to the first Windsor meeting in order to set the compasses of the commission’s members. Mary Tanner, former Moderator of the WCC Faith and Order Commission, reminded the commission of the recent history of discernment in communion; Paul Avis, Secretary to the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity, delved further back in time to the conciliar movement of the high Middle Ages. Bishop Stephen Sykes spoke from the view point of the recent work of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, and Chris Sugden from the communion-wide perspectives generated by his work at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.

In North America, it was decided that we needed to hear from the leadership of the Episcopal Church (USA), and Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold graciously led a team of voices from different perspectives and various official positions in the church. The Commission also decided that it should hear from Bishop Bob Duncan of the Network of Anglican Dioceses and Parishes, as one of the leading voices of opposition in the States, and he was invited to bring a team along as well. There has been some comment that some persons of homosexual orientation were not invited explicitly to speak of their experience, but this was solely because the Commission knew that it could not adjudicate on these matters, but merely on the ecclesiological issues. Gene Robinson did not meet the commission in person, but he submitted several pieces of evidence.

Each day of the plenary sessions was surrounded by the rhythms of worship and Bible study. The third session was dominated by the formulation and discussion of the text of the report. I believe that the commission made a remarkable journey in the year. Strongly different views on the developments in North America were represented on the Commission; those views, echoed in the evidence submitted, were all forcefully and frankly exchanged. But every member of the commission also firmly believed in the future of the Communion, and for that reason found the will to work out a series of recommendations that they could all commend together to the Communion. I honestly believe that we have experienced God’s Spirit at work in bringing the work of the Commission to a single conclusion. Its recommendations – well, they shall be the subject of assessment and discussion very soon.

Gregory Cameron is the Director of Ecumenical Affairs and Studies of the Anglican Communion