During the weeks leading up to the recently concluded Lambeth Conference, an approximately decennial meeting of Anglican primates, the rector of St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church, San Marino, California, to which I belong, saw fit to insert in the weekly worship leaflet a history of the conference in four short installments. Written by the Reverand Christopher L. Webber, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, the capsule history made interesting reading, perhaps especially for this cradle Catholic and former Jesuit.

One learned that the initial impulse for the Lambeth Conference only came in 1867 and then from Canadian Anglicans uneasy over their country’s evolution toward independence from Britain. If Canada became fully independent, would the Church of Canada, against its wishes, be forced to become the Canadian equivalent of the Episcopal Church in the United States? Reluctantly, the archbishop of Canterbury agreed to hold a meeting, but he insisted that it would seek only “brotherly counsel and encouragement.” At the second Lambeth conference, in 1888, a starchy resolution underscored this determination not to slide into a quasi-papacy: “There is no intention whatever on the part of anybody to gather together the bishops of the Anglican Church for the sake of defining any matter of doctrine.” The principle of unity proper to Anglicans was to be mutual forbearance such that “the duly certified action of every national or particular church...should be respected by all the other churches.” The archbishop of York, citing the Acts of the Apostles, reminded the conference tartly that differences among the churches began with Peter and Paul.

During the twentieth century, however, the issues of divorce, remarriage, intermarriage, contraception, and the status of women in the church—all of which fell plausibly within the avowedly pastoral purview of the Lambeth Conference—replaced almost completely such classic doctrinal issues as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in determining whether one was or was not a communicant in good standing. Thus, when the 1900 conference ruled that only the “innocent party” to a divorce might be readmitted to Communion after a civil marriage, it did tacitly claim a right to determine who was an Anglican. And since bishops attended the conference only at the invitation of the archbishop of Canterbury, a personal authority seemed to accrue to him to declare whether a given church was legitimately Anglican or not.

In matters of sexuality and church discipline, the path of the Lambeth Conference through the twentieth century was, as Webber summarizes it, a long, slow walk to the left climaxed by a sudden lurch to the right in 1998. As late as 1920, the conference went so far as to link “the open or secret sale of contraceptives and the continued existence of brothels.” But qualifications began to creep in at the 1930 and 1948 conferences, and in 1958 a resolution boldly declared that family planning is “a right and important factor in Christian family life,” a position reaffirmed in 1968 with explicit reference to the then just-issued papal encyclical Humanae vitae.

Lambeth was responding rather than dictating to the faithful regarding contraception, but had this not, broadly speaking, been its founding, pastoral intent? During the 1970s, when a long-running Anglican debate over the ordination of women was preempted by their actual ordination in Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and the United States, the response of the 1978 conference, consistently enough, was to affirm “the legal right of each church to make its own decision” in this matter. In 1988, it took the identical position with regard to the ordination of women to the episcopate.

Given this history, what might have seemed in the offing in 1988 when the need was first voiced “for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality” was a gradual loosening of traditional strictures, eased by the reassurance that change would come piecemeal, only as and if the constituent churches saw fit to implement change. But against expectations, gay weddings and the ordination of a gay bishop in the United States brought a strong conservative reaction in 1998. Resolution 1:10 of that year’s Lambeth Conference, backed heavily by conservative African prelates, declared that homosexual practice was “incompatible with Scripture,” called for a moratorium on gay marriage and gay ordination, and strongly implied that Rowan Williams, the current archbishop of Canterbury, should excommunicate the Episcopal Church in the United States if it did not turn the moratorium into an outright prohibition by 2008.

Williams declined to take that step. Instead, when elaborate interim consultation and a much-discussed Windsor Report led only to a cordial standoff, he decided that the 2008 Lambeth Conference would issue no resolutions at all but only engage in extended indaba (a Zulu word for tribal consultation, borrowed as a gesture to Africa). Frustrated, the conservatives then created an anti-Lambeth of their own, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), whose first meeting took place in Jordan and Israel shortly before the 2008 Lambeth Conference, which GAFCON delegates boycotted.

What lies ahead? GAFCON seems bent on becoming a strong vehicle for church governance, a kind of standing quasi-ecumenical council for Anglicans who want one. Williams, for his part, in remarks made at the end of the Lambeth Conference in August, seemed to foresee a milder version of the same thing for the communion over which he still presides-namely, the formulation of a “covenant,” by subscribing to which constituent churches would accept or decline membership. In his concluding address, Williams said: “a covenanted future...has the potential to make us more a church; more of a ‘catholic’ church in the proper sense, a church, that is, which understands its ministry and service as united and interdependent around the world.”

But do the world’s Anglicans, leaving aside the GAFCON Afro-Anglicans and their American supporters, really want to be “more a church”? In precise and dry language, an editorial appearing August 15 in the (Anglican) Church of Ireland Gazette says no. “It is important to emphasize,” the editorial avers, “that the Anglican Communion is not, as Dr. Williams did at least suggest in his statement, a church. It is a communion of churches,” while “the Lambeth conference is, precisely, a conference. It is not a synod.” Accordingly, Lambeth has no governing authority, and “members are free to attend or to ‘boycott,’ as they wish.” Such would not be the case if they did have a role in governance.

In short, no greater Anglican Church, therefore no schism within the church. This classic view of Anglican polity, rooted ultimately in the city- and region-based ecclesial polity of the early church, has the clear backing of the Episcopal Church. Its roots are deep enough among Anglicans around the world that it will surely still be a live option at the end of the coming ten full years of debate about the still-to-be-written covenant. Shifting demographics alone are no more likely to dislodge so strong a habit of mind than shifting demographics alone are likely to dislodge any other strongly rooted first-world institution.

The discovery that the West African (notably not South African) Anglicans, who now so hugely outnumber Euro-American Anglicans, are militantly conservative regarding homosexuality and solascripturalist regarding church authority has led conservative American Episcopalians who share these views into an occasionally giddy enthusiasm. Church historian Philip Jenkins, himself a theological and political conservative in a mainstream Episcopal congregation, put it thus at a press conference under the auspices of the Pew Forum:

Just think of the rhetorical, political advantages of being aware that this [demographic dominance by the global South] is the future of Christianity. “We are allying ourselves not with the decadent, Northern world, but with the future of the church.” Think of the advantages that gives you, if you’re trying to put on a spokesperson for a conservative cause, and the person you put on is an African or an Asian who is going to present the issue in terms of fighting cultural imperialism. Oh boy, that’s good. Politically, that’s enormously powerful.

But is it? Powerful where? Powerful for or against whom? The question brings me back to my pew at St. Edmund’s. Ours is a well-to-do church in a Republican suburb with, as it happens, a well-liked, politically moderate to compassionately conservative gay rector, the Rev. George F. Woodward III, whose sexual orientation, known to all for some years now, has ceased to be a topic of conversation. I have long sensed that even politically conservative Episcopalians tend to be nonchalant about homosexuality, and my hunch was confirmed by the June 2008 Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey. Episcopalians are 26 percent liberal, 43 percent moderate, and 27 percent conservative in general political preference; but when it comes to homosexuality, 70 percent choose “should be accepted,” while only 23 percent choose “should be discouraged.” In short: politically conservative or moderate, socially liberal, and in that mix probably ahead of the curve. All surveys, after all, show that younger Americans are more tolerant of homosexuality than older Americans; few show any durable shift to the political left. Ten years from now, how many Episcopalians will want to exchange the security of local governance for the perils of remote governance by an Africa-dominated council—all to escape the peril of gay marriage and gay ordination? By then, to be sure, the GAFCON Americans, with a bishop or two of their own, may be a self-governing church, but as such—without, so to call it, the African inflation—they will be almost negligibly small. Meanwhile, for their own children, a decade from now the dinner-table question may well be: “You guys set up a whole ’nother church over that?”

At the end of his capsule history, Fr. Webber writes perceptively of “the central question of Anglican life: Can a Christian community exist without a central authority and narrow definitions of doctrine? One proposed answer is an Anglican covenant, which some see as a hopeful way forward, but others reject it as changing the focus of Anglican life from communion to laws.” My prediction is that ten years from now, the nays will have it. The Episcopal Church will be about the size it is now, governed about the way it is now. GAFCON will have faded, losing some of its members to the Catholic Church but more to a kind of inertial reconciliation with the Episcopal Church. Episcopalians will adapt benignly, if need be, to a looser relationship with Canterbury and the Lambeth Conference, which is unlikely to adopt a covenant at all comparable to one of the classic “confessions” of the Reformation. As for Christian communion among the churches of this tradition, Lambeth is, after all, only one vehicle for it and, as the Church of Ireland has reminded us, an optional one at that.


Read more: Letters, October 10, 2008

Related: Jack Miles on the Vatican's new provision for Anglicans: Trading Places
Barry Jay Seltser on homosexuality and the Anglican Communion: Separated Brethren
Oliver Larry Yarbrough reviews a biography of Rowan Williams: Is He Fit?

Published in the 2008-09-12 issue: View Contents

Jack Miles is the author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography and, most recently, Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story (W. W. Norton).

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