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Lambeth Conferences

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The term Lambeth Conference refers to the congregation of Anglican bishops which meets, usually every 10 years, to discuss matters of faith and doctrine. The conference does not issue decrees but only expresses the general opinion of the hierarchy of the Anglican church. Sponsored by the archbishop of Canterbury, the conference convenes at his London residence, Lambeth Palace. The bishops who attend belong to the world confederation of Anglican Churches known as the Anglican Communion.

Development. The origin of the conference dates from 1865, when the bishops of Canada assembled to discuss certain problems of ecclesiastical government. At this meeting, the Canadian bishops proposed that a council be held to pass judgment on matters of faith and doctrine, but this suggestion was strenuously opposed by some of the participants. The matter was referred to the archbishop of Canterbury, who decided in favor of the proposal. Invitations were then sent to bishops throughout the Anglican Communion, and 76 bishops, representing different countries, assembled at Lambeth Palace in September, 1867. This first conference issued an “Address to the Faithful” and set the tone for subsequent gatherings.

An attempt to repeat the experience in 1872 failed, but in 1878 the Second Lambeth conference was convened and was attended by 100 bishops. At this meeting, beneficial discussions were held on unity within the Anglican Church, on religious skepticism, and on the conditions and needs of the church in all countries. It was at this conference that the bishops decided to meet at regular intervals. Since then these plenary sessions have grown in size and significance and have become an essential feature of the Anglican Church.

At the Conference of 1888, 10 years later, the assembly approved a program for achieving unity with other Christian denominations. The program, known as the “quadrilateral” or fourfold platform, had been proposed by American Episcopalians in 1886. The text of the articles states that the essentials of the true ecumenical spirit include (1) the Holy Scripture, as the Word of God, (2) the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, as the rule of faith, (3) the two sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and (4) the episcopate, as the keystone of governmental unity. This expression of Anglican doctrine was not new, but its simplification to four points made it a convenient basis for popular discussion and official action. However, Anglicans have pointed out that the program’s chief difficulty as a basis for reunion is that it ranks as essential the major points in which the Anglican churches differ from most Protestant denominations.

The next conference was held in 1897, in order that it might participate in the celebrations of the thirteenth centenary of the arrival in England (597) of St. Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury. By the end of the nineteenth century, the English Church had been divided into separate provinces overseas, and new problems of administration were the major topics for discussion.

Twentieth Century. The Conference of 1908, which succeeded a pan-Anglican congress of some 7,000 clerical and lay delegates, was attended by 242 bishops. This was the largest and most important conference held up to that time. Its major discussion centered around the bishops’ desire to emphasize the international aspect of the Anglican Church. They sought to demonstrate that the Anglican Church in China or in South Africa had equal stature with the church in England.

To support their stand, the bishops issued a statement, declaring, “It can no longer seem necessary to talk apologetically of missions. There is the splendid hope that from the field of foreign missions there will be gathered for the enrichment of the Church’s manifold heritage, the ample and varied contribution of the special powers and characteristics belonging to the several nations of mankind.” The conference also encouraged independence and autonomy, the establishment of native episcopates, and the adaptation of services, discipline, and organization of the church to local needs.

The 1920 conference declared itself unreservedly opposed to artificial contraception. In a resolution agreed upon at the meeting, the bishops warned “against the use of unnatural means of avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers — physical, moral, and religious — thereby incurred.” The Lambeth assembly of 1930 modified this position by stating, “If there is a good moral reason why abstinence should not be followed, we cannot condemn the use of scientific methods for preventing conception which are thoughtfully and conscientiously adopted.”

Among the most significant developments in modern Anglicanism was the rise of the Church of South India, first launched in 1919 by a group of Indian Christians. Its purpose was to amalgamate the Anglican Communion with Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodist bodies. A plan was published in 1929, and the Lambeth Conference of 1930 gave its moral support, declaring its “strong desire that, as soon as the negotiations are successfully completed, the venture should be made and the union inaugurated.” Largely because of the support of Lambeth, the Church of South India came into existence in 1947.

Recent Developments. The most significant conference of recent times was the Lambeth meeting of 1958, which was attended by 310 bishops from 64 countries, and presided over by Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1945 to 1961. The encyclical letter which the conference issued set a new tone to the Anglican concept of its own ecclesiastical structure and relationship to other Christian communions.

Departing from what had been a dominantly practical emphasis, the bishops entered into the field of doctrine with a view to clarifying the church’s position with reference to the current ecumenical movement. The encouragement of the 1958 conference led to active negotiations for organic merger between the Anglican and Presbyterian bodies. One of the critical issues on which the conference passed judgment was the distinction between clergy and laity. Seeking to deemphasize the distinction, the bishops stated, “There is a ministry for every member of Christ; every man and woman who is confirmed is commissioned to this ministry in the Church, the home, the community, the world of business, and social life.”

Equally prominent was the attention paid to the question of “family planning.” The bishops contended that the decision of the number of children in a family is a responsibility “laid by God upon the conscience of parents everywhere; that this planning, in such ways as are mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience, is a right and important factor in Christian family life and should be the result of positive choice before God.” While Anglican opinion varies on exactly how much sanction the conference gave to artificial contraception, the general interpretation is that the forthright approval of 1930 was not modified but only restated in more conciliatory terms.

Although the resolutions of the Lambeth conferences are highly respected and generally accepted by Anglicans, they are not strictly juridical declarations. Anglicans are not bound in conscience to follow them. Yet no single aspect of the Anglican Church has been more influential in uniting the Anglican Communion than the Lambeth Palace meetings.

For further information read Anglicanism.

Catholic Encylopedia for School and Home
Vol. 6, pp. 237-239

Copyright © 1997 by Inter Mirifica

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