Peter Toon explains why the Lambeth Conference’s pretensions to being a synod are the cause of its problems

Let us begin with two simple definitions. A Conference is a meeting for formal discussion and exchange of opinions. It normally has minimal entrance requirements and does not bind anyone present to its ‘mind’, and certainly does not bind anyone not present to any majority opinion expressed in the meeting. In contrast, a Synod is a governing assembly composed of authorized persons who together make authoritative decisions for their constituency.

The Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops is called a Conference, but it is not really a Conference, pure and simple, and never really has been since it first met in 1867. Why? Because it prepares Reports and passes Resolutions which it gives to the world and the Church as the mind of the Anglican Communion of Churches. Yet, though it does this, none of the Provinces of the Communion automatically accepts what the Conference sets forth and, further, none of the bishops present is obliged to go home to propagate what was accepted by majority vote at the Conference.

In the nineteenth century, Bishop J.C. Ryle of Liverpool – along with others -refused to attend because he saw that it had tendencies or pretensions to being a Synod, and, thereby, it challenged the autonomy of the Church of England, by law established. By vow and promise he was bound to this Church.

Creating controversy

The fact that it is not a Conference at all, but a would-be Synod or a Conference-trying-to-be-a-Synod, is one of the major reasons why there is such controversy over who should or should not attend the next one planned for July 2008.

Bishop Ryle refused to attend in 1897 because it was a would-be Synod and not simply a Conference; but, in 2007, Evangelical bishops and archbishops of the Global South, who admire Ryle as an evangelical theologian, are refusing to attend the 2008 gathering because it is not being treated as a would-be-Synod in the way that they understand such to work.

They want excluded those North American bishops who have transgressed the majority mind of the Anglican Communion, as that mind was expressed at the last Lambeth Conference in a Resolution on Sexuality. They want included those bishops who have ‘invaded’ the territory of The Episcopal Church in the name of the AMiA and the CANA (and who likewise have transgressed a Resolution of 1988).

The problem is that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has always been seen as the one who calls the ‘Conference’ and invites bishops to it, agrees with them that it is a kind of would-be-Synod but disagrees with them as to who should be invited.

Instrument of unity?

If the would-be-Synod of 2008 could be downgraded by the Archbishop of Canterbury to being merely an international Conference, then all the bishops of the 38 Provinces and of the major Extra-Mural Anglican Churches could be invited. And there could be in-depth study, debate, fellowship and the like without creating Reports and without making Resolutions. And the benefits of such would be massive.

There could be honest discussion between those with differing viewpoints over coffee or beer and all this without having to take a vote at the end. Imagine Akinola talking to Gene Robinson and Archbishop Hepworth of the Traditional Anglican Communion talking to the Archbishop of York! Wow!

As long as the so-called Conference is not a Conference but a would-be-Synod, there will be massive problems and they will increase rather than decrease. Right now, to call the Lambeth Conference the primary instrument of unity is to speak in a language that has no value.

Perhaps the current global crisis of Anglicanism requires a fresh start, and to make the Lambeth Conference into a real Conference could well be a basic start. Then, flowing from this, the other so-called instruments of unity and the place of the classic Formularies could be evaluated calmly!