Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lambeth from 1958 to 1978: The Rest of the Story

The Episcopal Life Sunday bulletin insert for June 15 has its agenda clearly marked all over it: its theme is nothing less than "How the Bishops at Lambeth Grew in Wisdom and Came to Love Birth Control." To achieve its end, it does not shrink from misquoting and mischaracterizing resolutions, and distorting the work and accomplishments, of the three decennial Conferences of 1958, 1968 and 1978. Unlike the first two inserts in the series, this agenda has been taken over more or less intact from the portions of the longer series by Father Webber that deal with these Conferences. Let's have a closer look, beginning with the work of the 1958 Conference.

The insert notes in a summary that the 1958 Conference produced 131 resolutions, "carefully organized under 8 headings . . .". (There are actually only seven major headings, but who is going to quibble over that kind of inaccuracy? There are lots of bigger fish to fry.) Then it proceeds to focus on just two of the twenty resolutions dealing with "The Family in Contemporary Society," and in quoting them, says:
Marriage, they said, is a "vocation to holiness" and the idea of the family is "rooted in the Godhead." Consequently, the bishops agreed, "all problems of sex relations, the procreation of children, and the organisation of family life must be related, consciously and directly, to the creative, redemptive, and sanctifying power of God.”
. . .
To say, as they now did, that family planning is “a right and important factor in Christian family life” is to admit either that they had been wrong in 1920 or that the times had changed—perhaps both were true. It was the first of several issues on which the bishops would reverse earlier stands in the last half of the 20th century.
These quotations attempt to show a conflict with a resolution the Bishops passed in 1920, but the conflict is just not there in the originals. Here is the resolution adopted in 1920:
Resolution 68

Problems of Marriage and Sexual Morality

The Conference, while declining to lay down rules which will meet the needs of every abnormal case, regards with grave concern the spread in modern society of theories and practices hostile to the family. We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers - physical, moral and religious - thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race. In opposition to the teaching which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing considerations of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists, namely the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children; the other is the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control.

We desire solemnly to commend what we have said to Christian people and to all who will hear.
In Resolutions 69 and 70 from the same Conference, the Bishops explained that they viewed the use of prophylactics to prevent infection, and the sale of contraceptives, to constitute "an invitation to vice." So in the language of Resolution 68 just quoted, they emphasized "the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control" as the principal means of family planning. Now take a look at this Resolution adopted at the 1958 Conference:
Resolution 113

The Family in Contemporary Society - Marriage

The Conference affirms that marriage is a vocation to holiness, through which men and women share in the love and creative purpose of God. The sins of self-indulgence and sensuality, born of selfishness and a refusal to accept marriage as a divine vocation, destroy its true nature and depth, and the right fullness and balance of the relationship between men and women. Christians need always to remember that sexual love is not an end in itself nor a means to self-gratification, and that self-discipline and restraint are essential conditions of the freedom of marriage and family planning.
So in 1920 the Bishops called for "deliberate and thoughtful self-control," and in 1958 they used the words "self-discipline and restraint". This is an admission that in 1920 they were wrong? To the contrary---the Bishops were being consistent, and it is the bulletin insert that has it wrong. It is true they did not repeat their earlier condemnation of artificial methods of birth control as being conducive to vice, but the repetition of "self-discipline and restraint" as "essential conditions of . . . family planning" is hardly an endorsement of such methods.

Having set up the false conflict, the bulletin insert now passes immediately to the Lambeth Conference of 1968, where it will continue its theme. In doing so, it fails to discuss any of the significant work of the 1958 Conference in the areas of acknowledging the accomplishments of scholars in publishing (in 1952) the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, of encouraging further ecumenical discussions with a wide variety of denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as the calling of an international ecumenical conference; its continued call for the formation of what would become the Anglican Consultative Council (not as yet, however, envisioned with the participation of the laity); on Prayer Book revision; its warnings about "wandering Bishops," or episcopi vagantes; and on the causes of international disarmament and world peace. Such topics do not fit the prescribed agenda, so the reader will not be told of them.

The Conference in 1968 passed a resolution that took issue with the Pope's recent encyclical banning all forms of artificial birth control. However, in doing so, the Resolution quoted the resolutions from 1958 discussed above, including the one calling for "discipline and self-restraint." Rather than saying they were wrong about the contraceptives available in 1920, the Bishops seemed to be saying that newer and more modern methods of birth control could be considered "in the light of the continuing sociological and scientific developments of the past decades." But the bulletin's reductor (see my first post about this term)---and Father Webber, too, cannot pass up the opportunity to take a jibe at the Bishops for "changing their mind."

The remaining summary of the work of the 1968 Conference is fair in calling attention to the establishment of the Anglican Consultative Council, with the full participation of both laity and clergy, and the decision to refer to it the knotty question of women's ordination. Nevertheless, it still omits to mention the passage of Resolution 67, entitled "The Role of the Anglican Communion - Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence", with language foreshadowing that of the Windsor Report nearly forty years later:
(a) The Conference records its gratitude for the concept of mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ, and for the renewed sense of responsibility for each other which it has created within our Communion.

(b) The Conference believes that a developing MRI has a vital contribution to make to our relationships within the whole Church of God. It therefore summons our Churches to a deeper commitment to Christ's mission through a wide partnership of prayer, by sharing sacrificially and effectively their manpower and money, and by a readiness to learn from each other. . . .
Nor is there any mention of the Conference's recommending that subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles no longer be required of ordinands.

Next the bulletin insert turns to the 1978 Conference, but barely mentions its work. The reason is that this was the Conference that noted the practice of ordaining women to the priesthood had already begun, and that the ordination of women to the episcopate could not be far behind. It also was the first Conference to call for "deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality," while reaffirming "heterosexuality as the scriptural norm." The anonymous reductor, you see, is setting up the "failure" of Lambeth to deal with the problems that plague the Church today, by showing us its supposed failures and reversals on other issues in the past. Nothing could be more unfair to the serious work accomplished at the 1978 Lambeth Conference. Unlike its recent predecessors, this Conference was more concerned with substance and quality, rather than sheer quantity: it produced just 37 resolutions, most of which are still worth looking at today. The very first resolution, entitled "Today's World," is too long to quote here, but contains a number of memorable observations which are still of value, and it was followed by a second resolution that deals with the implementation of the first one---so it was not just an espousal of fine-sounding platitudes, but a call to action. There was also a resolution endorsing the recommendation of the newly-created Anglican Consultative Council to create an "inter-Anglican theological and doctrinal advisory commission." Although the Advisory Commission has met several times since its establishment, and produced some reports, it seems as though it has yet to find its place as a potentially unifying force within the wider Anglican Communion, and its activities to date did not dissuade the Lambeth Commission in its Windsor Report from calling for the creation of a Communion-wide Covenant.

It is indeed a shame that the editors at Episcopal Life could not find it in themselves to give the Sunday reader more of a true perspective on the work of these three Conferences. What I believe they illustrate is that a ten-year period between meetings was becoming too long in light of the gradually accelerating pace of social change. The collective spirit and consensus embodied in the various resolutions began to dissipate as the individual bishops returned to their sees and had to cope with local problems and conflicts, and in the gap, the synods (assemblies) of the individual national churches began to move to the front and assume the primary responsibility for staking out positions that were not always in harmony with what had been voted at Lambeth. As we shall see in the final installment next week, these nationalistic pressures eventually became too much to contain within the framework of a decennial gathering.

[A printable version of this post is here.]

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