Saturday, June 7, 2008

Lambeth Between Wars: the Rest of the Story

The Sunday bulletin insert produced by Episcopal Life for June 8 covers the Lambeth Conferences held before and after World War I and World War II---the Conferences of 1908, 1920, 1930 and 1948. The Conference twice had to be postponed due to the impossibility of gathering during a time of war. At the same time, when they did manage to assemble, it was during a time of great social and political upheaval, particularly in the aftermath of the destruction that had been caused, and the rebuilding made necessary. These were not easy times for those whose faith was vulnerable to testing, and the consistency of doctrine reflected in the resolutions adopted by the wartime Conferences is a testament to the firmness of the moral compass provided by the bishops of the Anglican Communion during these years.

Unfortunately, there is little sense of any such moral integrity to be gained from the deprecatory tone of the bulletin insert. The text starts off neutrally enough:
When the Lambeth Conference met in 1908 the bishops were entering a new century and facing new issues. Their focus in 16 resolutions was, appropriately, on education and training both for ministry and lay people. There was a greater interest as well in ecumenical relationships, especially with the Orthodox, the Old Catholic Churches, and the Presbyterians. The conference condemned the opium trade and deplored the growing "disregard of the sanctity of marriage." Those who were divorced, they said, could not be remarried in the Church, though the "innocent party" might be readmitted to communion after a civil marriage. Birth control and abortion were condemned.

Ironically, the bishops, while "frankly acknowledging the moral gains sometimes won by war," rejoiced in the "increasing willingness to settle difficulties among nations by peaceful methods." The outbreak of World War I caused the postponement of their next meeting.
This is all fine, as far as it goes. There were 241 bishops attending the 1908 Conference; it was by far the largest Conference to date, and it adopted in all some 78 resolutions on a wide range of topics. The Episcopal Life account mentions the resolutions prohibiting divorced persons, even "innocent parties" in cases of adultery, from being remarried in the Church; it does not note that the latter prohibition carried by a bare majority of 87 to 84. Thus it is not correct to imply that the mind of the Church was monolithic on this point.

But it is the apparent purpose of the Episcopal Life series to show, as I said in my first post, that change is not only healthy and necessary, but inevitable. Thus the assembled Anglican bishops in the war years are not to be singled out for their moral leadership in a troubled era, but rather for their antiquated obstinacy in facing the winds of change. The insert takes on a somewhat mocking tone as it continues:
Meeting in 1920, the bishops had nothing to say about any "moral gains" that might have been won but did commend the League of Nations to the people of the world. Americans rejected that advice. The most revolutionary statement they made was to advise that women (who had just been given the right to vote in America) could be admitted to any office in which a layman might serve. It took nearly 50 years for the American Church to catch up with that and allow women to serve on vestries and as deputies to General Convention. In a more conservative mood, they continued to condemn birth control and linked it with prostitution in calling on governments to end “the open or secret sale of contraceptives, and the continued existence of brothels.”

Women’s ministry was a major concern, but the restoration of the order of deaconesses was all they could recommend.
It is difficult to know what to make of the overall message here, because the unknown reductor apparently cannot make up his or her mind: were the Americans correct to reject the League of Nations, and advanced in allowing women the right to vote? Maybe the reductor is unaware that Britain had given women the right to vote two years before America did, and Finland, Australia and New Zealand years before that. And what are we to make of the jibe at the American Church for taking another 50 years to follow England's example of allowing women to be deputies to General Convention? It is instructive to compare to the passage I have just quoted the following paragraphs on the same topic:
The First World War made it necessary to postpone the next Lambeth Conference until 1920, and the war had begun to change settled views on a number of issues. Women, said the 1920 conference, should be admitted to all councils in the church in which lay men served. Here the conference was, indeed, staking out new territory. It took the Episcopal Church in the U.S. another fifty years to get itself in line with Lambeth and admit women as deputies to its General Convention.

On other matters of gender, however, the bishops at Lambeth were much more hesitant. The use of contraception was seen as a “grave danger - physical, moral and religious,” and the distribution of prophylactics was seen as “an invitation to vice.” The bishops believed that the use of such materials “threatens the race.” An echo of this viewpoint might be found in the response of the Church in Nigeria to the request of the 1998 Lambeth Conference that the Communion should listen to homosexuals as the Nigerian Church stated that such practice “threatens . . . the continuation of the race.” The bishops called on Christians everywhere to bring pressure on governments to end “the open or secret sale of contraceptives, and the continued existence of brothels.”
Here at least we have a consistent viewpoint: it is the familiar one of today, where the 1920's are ancient history, the opinions of that time are hopelessly antiquated, and a supercilious parallel is drawn between the anti-homosexual stance of the Church in Nigeria today (with no awareness of its doctrinal struggle against militant Islam, whose followers do not proselytize among gays) and the anti-contraceptive stance of the 1920 Lambeth Conference. (Unlike present-day TEC, the bishops at Lambeth had more on their minds than the author credits them with in this passage; for an example of their broader thinking, see this resolution, and view this list of the eighty in all that were adopted in 1920.) The bias here is unabashed, and not confused at all, as in the reduced version. The author of the second passage just quoted is, of course, Father Webber, from whose article on the topic Episcopal Life has condensed its June 8 Sunday bulletin. All of which just goes to show that the analogy that I drew at the outset of this series---the quality of the condensed product turns on the material one starts with---is incomplete. It needs to add: "and it depends on the skills of the cook." I find it fascinating to see how the post-modern TEC outlook finds it necessary, in order to reach the masses in the pew, to tinker with an essay that is already biased heavily toward its own point of view. It appears to be another example of a chef who cannot leave the broth alone!

The Sunday insert sums up the entire work of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, comprising 75 resolutions in all, in just two words: "birth control," and the Episcopal Life message is an attack on the doctrine (expressed first in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) that marriage is instituted primarily for procreation. The agenda here is to prepare the reader for the current TEC views on same-sex marriages and their blessing in church. That means, of course, that the insert cannot quote the first of the Conference's resolutions on marriage:
The Conference believes that the conditions of modern life call for a fresh statement from the Christian Church on the subject of sex. It declares that the functions of sex as a God-given factor in human life are essentially noble and creative. Responsibility in regard to their right use needs the greater emphasis in view of widespread laxity of thought and conduct in all these matters.
No, that would not fit at all with the current agenda. Nor would the next resolution:
The Conference believes that in the exalted view of marriage taught by our Lord is to be found the solution of the problems with which we are faced. His teaching is reinforced by certain elements which have found a new emphasis in modern life, particularly the sacredness of personality, the more equal partnership of men and women, and the biological importance of monogamy.
And least of all, this resolution:
The Conference affirms:

the duty of parenthood as the glory of married life;

the benefit of a family as a joy in itself, as a vital contribution to the nation's welfare, and as a means of character-building for both parents and children;

the privilege of discipline and sacrifice to this end.
Even though I am a curmudgeon, I still find it striking that the Sunday bulletin reader not only is not told about these resolutions defining high goals for Christian marriages, but also that at the end of the bulletin one finds this extraordinary statement: "Not until 1958 would the Bishops begin to construct a positive theology of marriage . . ." (italics added). What in the world does Father Webber (for as we shall see, this is his own view of the matter) think the Bishops were saying in 1930?

I could go on at considerable length about the accomplishments of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, in the areas of race relations and discrimination, women's equality and ministry, Church provincial structure, the Communion itself, and more. Anyone interested is invited to follow this link to the resolutions organized by topic, and to browse among any topic of interest to determine for oneself whether the dismissal of all this work with the words "birth control" is as outrageous as I have tried to suggest.

The bulletin insert gives a little more space to the 1948 Conference, but continues to manifest a sardonic tone. The Bishops can "do little more than repeat themselves" on the tired subject of marriage, and they did not begin to work on a "positive theology of marriage" until the next Lambeth Conference, in 1958. Nothing is mentioned of the tremendous dislocations which the Church was trying to cope with after the War; of how the entire structure of parish-based charity, and care and visitations of the sick and elderly, had been dismantled in the crisis; and of how the bishops at Lambeth took the epochal step of agreeing that primary responsibility for welfare would be transferred from the Church to the State. Recognition of this shift came with the nationalization of health and welfare services in that same year, when the Government takeover of private hospitals amounted to the largest seizure of property in England since Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. Thus started a trend in Britain that gradually undermined the role and the authority of the Church of England in social life---for, as one wag put it, "What was the point in worshiping in Westminster Abbey when Jesus had departed for Whitehall?" Note that a consequence of this trend is making the headlines in Britain today: the Government has marginalized the ability of the Church to play any significant role in social welfare.

Well, that was quite a history lesson. I didn't know when I started that there would be so much to touch upon which the Episcopal Life insert either twisted, or omitted entirely. Next week I shall take a critical look at Part III of their series, and I have no doubt but that there will be much more to discover.

[A printable version of this post is here.]

1 comment:

  1. The truth be told, history is written by the victors, then it is rewritten by subsequent combatants to further their cause (I will not credit Fr. Webber with the label "victor").
    Thank you for the link to:

    Resolution 19
    "The Church and the Modern World - The Church and the Modern State
    We believe that the state is under the moral law of God, and is intended by him to be an instrument for human welfare. We therefore welcome the growing concern and care of the modern state for its citizens, and call upon Church members to accept their own political responsibility and to co-operate with the state and its officers in their work."

    The state is under the moral law of God? Where did that come from? I know where it leads.
    I wonder if they are turning in their graves over those words.