The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, warns that the refusal of some bishops to attend the Lambeth Conference signals a change in attitude which could cause damage to the unity of the church

I have lost count of the number of people who have commiserated with me because I am going to the Lambeth Conference. They either assume it will be an ecclesiastical punch-up or imagine the company of over six hundred bishops must be a foretaste of everlasting punishment.

An overload of episcopal fellowship will be bearable because of the cultural and theological diversity among the bishops, let alone their varied personalities. My real regret is that the diversity will be diminished compared with the last two Lambeth Conferences, because there have been so many refusals of the Archbishops invitation. While I wouldn’t relish any sort of ecclesiastical punch-up, I will be disappointed if we don’t discuss the issues which are currently so divisive. We need to do so in ways less oppressive than some of the plenary sessions last time, but it is difficult to have a debate if some of the main contenders are not represented.

Reasons for refusal

Those bishops who refuse to come stand in a longer tradition than they may realize. Archbishop Longley invited 151 bishops to the first Lambeth Conference in 1867. (He even included all retired bishops: we would need an extra university campus if that was tried again.) In the event 76 bishops turned up, almost exactly half those who were invited. This time the proportion will be a good deal higher.
Back in 1867 some bishops could not come because of illness, or distance, but quite a few, the Archbishop of York among them, refused on principle. They feared the authority of this new conference. Wouldn’t it inevitably weaken the established position of the Church of England by subjecting it to colonial and foreign influence? So they stayed away, despite Longley’s assurance that ‘such a meeting…would not be competent to make declarations or lay down definitions on points of doctrine’.

Bishops will stay away from this year’s Lambeth Conference for the opposite reason given by the original refuseniks. They think the Lambeth Conference has too little authority. They also believe its standing has been fatally weakened by the way in which Resolution 1.10 from the
last conference has not been obeyed in some parts of the Anglican Communion. There seems to be less concern over the failure of the Communion to implement and obey many other resolutions over the years. But they ask, not unreasonably, what is the point in passing Resolutions if nothing is resolved? Doesn’t this simply reveal a vacuum of authority at the heart of Anglicanism?

A worrying development

It is intriguing that the Lambeth bishops have, from the beginning, produced a stream of resolutions, reports and pastoral letters. The Colenso affair (the hot topic at the first conference), evolution, birth control, the South India scheme or the ordination of women: there has always been some Communion-breaking issue which has tested episcopal unity and also spawned lengthy pronouncements. The current convulsion over sexuality doesn’t seem at first sight so very different.

But it has introduced a new, if not entirely unprecedented, factor. The Dean of Sydney, the Very Reverend Phillip Jensen, was recently reported as saying that the problem with the Lambeth Conference was the attendance of bishops who had consecrated Bishop Gene Robinson (who has not received an invitation himself). Those who consecrated him, argued Dean Jensen, were ‘false teachers who have acted in a way which makes fellowship with them impossible’. So it seems you cannot even confer, let alone worship, with those whom you believe have led the Church into error.

I am glad the same stance was not taken by the vast majority of English Anglicans when the decision was made to ordain women to the priesthood. The Act of Synod on episcopal ministry, as well as the provisions within the Measure itself, were grounded in a desire on both sides of that issue to remain in fellowship with each other despite profound differences. If things had been different, then I don’t suppose I would even be writing this article. If progress is slow on the ordination of women to the episcopate, it is the desire to remain in fellowship and with as much sacramental unity as possible which makes the task of devising legislation exacting.

Perhaps in these matters we need to renew our acquaintance with the Donatists. The parallels are inexact, though Dean Jensen’s words do carry some echoes of those fourth-century schismatics who thought they were more faithful to the Gospel than anyone else. The origins of the Donatist controversy centred on the consecration of Caecilian as Bishop of Carthage around 311. The claim, especially of bishops in Numidia, was that the consecrators included those who had betrayed the Christian faith in the Diocletian persecution and so were false teachers.

Lessons from the past

As time went on, the Donatists exploited economic unrest in North Africa, and consequent resentment of Rome as an imperial power and ecclesiastical authority, to add fervour to their cause. More locally, Numidia had no fondness for Carthage. In the current controversies within our own Anglican Communion, resentment of American hegemony and Western cultural imperialism is frequently exploited too.

St Augustine cut the branch on which the Donatists sat by stressing that the unworthiness of the minister did not effect the validity of the sacrament, a theological position so central to Anglicanism that it found its way into the Thirty-Nine Articles. But the long-lasting nature of the Donatist controversy weakened severely the North African Church. The Donatists only disappeared when almost the whole of the North African church was wiped out by Muslim conquest in the seventh century. If parallel it is, it is a grim one.

Back in the 1860s, Archbishop Longley recognized the imperfections of Anglican ecclesiology but placed considerable faith in the determination of this developing worldwide Communion to remain in fellowship. He believed that conferring with one another was a way to unity. In his day, St Augustine challenged the Donatists to public debate about that theological imperative derived from Christ himself – the unity of the Church. They were not responsive. I fear that those who have refused the Archbishop’s invitation to this Lambeth Conference will damage the unity of the church and the mission of Christ in our own time more than they seem to know.