Back in 1968, the Lambeth Conference service of Holy Communion planned for St Paul’s Cathedral had to be moved to the White City Stadium because of ‘the huge demand for tickets’. Fifteen thousand people were present, reported Pathé News, at this ‘climax of a missionary weekend when the bishops had visited most parts of Britain’. Further, it was a service of ‘huge proportions with a thousand-strong choir supported by the central band of the RAF leading the hymns’.
Fast forward a little over half a century and we see how the recently concluded Lambeth Conference certainly did not generate the same level of interest as this predecessor event. That in itself may not be a bad thing because, for the Church in these secular and hostile times, no news can indeed often amount to good news.
On the ground – ‘inside the tent’ – it was of course a different matter and there was drama aplenty for those moved to uncover it. An absence of, nay a boycott from, conservative minded African bishops in some of the larger Provinces in the Communion were inevitably seized upon as a sign of schism. It was reported as the old story of the decadent West deserting the certainties of its colonial past while the recipients of those certainties have chosen to remain steadfast to the imperial legacy which they have been bequeathed.
However, our primary concern as Catholic Christians cannot be the machinations of nation states, intriguing though they frequently are. We know that empires come and go and we know that we are called to uphold religious truth, whatever power games are being played out in front of us. So what, if anything, are we to make of the goings-on at the latest Lambeth Conference?
We already know the Anglican Communion to be almost impossibly broad; we are aware that its Instruments are not akin to a magisterium or even a basis on which to found a sacramental life. As a result, we have long known that what holds the bishops of the Communion together can only be loose at best and will to some degree be unsatisfactory to every shade of theological opinion represented. It would be a mistake to present the Communion with a coherence it does not possess.
In fact a loose confederation, amidst such starkly differing views on matters central to the Church’s life which include same sex marriage in church, is the only way in which the Communion has endured and can continue to do so. Mere survival as a communion may not seem to be an ambitious goal but, in an increasingly fractured and fractious world, there may be more merit in remaining as a presence than we sometimes think.
The question remains as to what the purpose of the Lambeth Conference is and what should it seek to achieve or represent. Given that it only takes place once a decade, it seems to the outsider that, amidst the clamour over its internal politics and its running costs, there may be value in a shorter formal event which emphasises fellowship and mutual support over doctrine, with more time for visiting parishes and other supporters in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Such an approach may not seek to be so overt in seeking to change the world one net zero target after another, but perhaps it would better reflect the position in which the Communion now finds itself.
So if it is clearer than ever that the Anglican Communion as an entity represents a confederation of churches rather than a single church, where do we find the Church as it should look? In our own context, we too face many challenges but have had the good fortune to witness a bumper year of almost 30 Society-related ordinations to the diaconate and the sacred priesthood this year. I had the good fortune to be present at some of these ordinations, stretching across both Church of England provinces, and it was wonderful to see the joy expressed by candidates and supporters alike, especially after the long months of pandemic.
A selection of ordination photographs is included in this month’s issue and we offer the newly ordained our prayers, along with others preparing for holy orders at Michaelmas. Returning to where we began, there are no ordinations without bishops and we trust that our shepherds retain in their minds their critical role in the Church’s mission: that ‘the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved’ (Acts 2.47).