Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Lambeth Beginnings: The Rest of the Story (I)

There is a technique used by good chefs to make a concentrated red wine sauce: simply take an entire bottle of red wine, and gently simmer it (with, say, some minced shallots, garlic and herbs) over low heat until the 25 ounces of wine have been reduced to about 3 ounces of rich, red sauce. It's a marvelous sauce marchand de vin (without any butter or fat) to accompany grilled meat---but as any good chef will tell you, how the sauce turns out depends on the wine with which you started.

Episcopal Life, the national news organ of The Episcopal Church, is currently publishing a series of Sunday bulletin inserts that deals with the history of the Lambeth Conference---the decennial gathering of all the active Bishops in the Anglican Communion under the auspices of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Like a sauce marchand de vin, the series has been condensed from a longer series written by the Rev. Christopher L. Webber, the author of Welcome to the Episcopal Church, and Re-Inventing Marriage (as well as others described on his Web site). The parent series, entitled "Unity and Diversity in the Lambeth Conference," was posted on the now-ended Episcopal Majority site; you can read it in four parts here, here, here and here.

By the time the longer series has been reduced to the bulletin version, what remains is chiefly the pro-American, pro-Episcopal Church bias of its author, but the theme of the longer series---"Unity and Diversity"---has been boiled down (by some anonymous editor at Episcopal Life, I must assume, for reasons shortly to appear) to a single note of "Change---It's Healthy, Necessary, and Inevitable." Please do not misinterpret me: there is nothing wrong with bias; we each have our own. The problem I am reacting to is the lack of balance in the resulting condensed product. To counteract this lack of balance, I offer in this series some perspective from a more Anglican, and less TEC-centered, point of view. (A printable version of this essay is here.)

In the insert for last Sunday, June 1, the anonymous reductor (as I shall choose to call him or her) covers the first three Lambeth Conferences, of 1867, 1878 and 1888. Given the original author's pro-American bias, it is not surprising that the opening fact, which emerged from the process of reduction into bulletin format, is this:
John Henry Hopkins was Bishop of Vermont and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church when he suggested in 1851 that a gathering of Anglican bishops would be useful, but nothing happened. Fifteen years later the Canadian Anglican Church suggested the same thing to the Archbishop of Canterbury and got his reluctant consent.
This makes it sound as though the impetus for the first Lambeth Conference began with the American church, and that is not correct. Our anonymous reductor has, without being aware of the actual history, ascribed to an American actor much more authority and responsibility than that actor deserves in the instigation of the Lambeth Conferences.  John Henry Hopkins was Bishop of Vermont in 1851, but he did not become Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church until near the end of the Civil War, in January 1865. During his three years as Presiding Bishop, his chief accomplishment was to work with his friend, the Rt. Rev. Stephen Elliott of Georgia (who was Presiding Bishop of the secessionist Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America) in reuniting the two churches. He may have saved the Episcopal Church as a single entity, but his determined stance that slavery was an institution sanctioned by God hardly justifies his being singled out in a Sunday bulletin as the moving cause for the first Lambeth Conference.

The reason I can attribute this misplaced emphasis to an anonymous reductor is that, in his original article, Father Webber has the facts right. He says, quite concisely and with a fair amount of accuracy (with emphasis added by me):
It was the Bishop of Vermont who first suggested a conference of Anglican bishops; but it was an appeal from the Canadian bishops, who saw the political unity between their country and England beginning to dissolve, that brought about the first gathering.
There is little to criticize about the statements I have italicized; they are the truth, as far as they go. (One quibble: I would add after his words "political unity" the phrase "with its shared ecclesiastical heritage". And as we shall see, there is obviously even more to tell than Father Webber can cover in just two sentences.) The pity (or rather, the lesson) is that in such a juxtaposition with sources, we can learn---to our dismay or to our satisfaction; it does not matter---exactly what the Sunday bulletin's editors think should be emphasized, or brought forward, in lieu of the facts. And as expressed in the maxim, "The truth is stranger than fiction," when we get to the bottom of the matter we find that the Sunday bulletin's artful recastings of events are no match against the account of what really happened. The lesson to be drawn here is: don't get your history from mass-produced Sunday bulletins. (And, Father Webber---you might want to be more careful to whom you lend your byline.)

In light of today's controversies sparked by Episcopal Church activism, what actually did serve as the impetus for the first Lambeth Conference simply does not fit conveniently into the mold which our anonymous Sunday bulletin reductor constructed before he or she began the work of reduction. The full story is far too long, and too full of shadings, for a short summary here. I will instead refer the reader to these links: first, the controversy created by the publication in 1860 of "Essays and Reviews," as a result of which two of the book's seven authors (collectively referred to, in the genteel academic prose of the day, as "the Seven Against Christ"; one of whom was named Rowland Williams) were deposed in the Court of Arches on charges of heresy, with the judgments of deposition then reversed by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (the Archbishop of Canterbury vigorously dissented). Next was the ruling by the Privy Council, at the same time and in connection with its reversal of the deposition of Bishop John William Colenso of the Diocese of Natal in South Africa for heresy, "that in any colony possessed of an independent legislature, the Crown has no jurisdiction whatever in ecclesiastical matters." That ruling, in turn, led (as explained in the documents in the link just given) to the cessation of the Queen's issuing a mandate to the Metropolitan of Canada for the consecration of any new Bishop elected in that country's church. The upshot of these events was to make the leaders of the Church aware of two basic facts: first, the Church of England could not constitutionally exert itself worldwide; and second, without any supreme authority, the branches of the Church that had been started outside of England could be left adrift, without a rudder, and so in time become less and less "Anglican." (Shades of the fears that drive us today!)

The realization that gradually came from these rulings in Privy Council---that there was no overall authority to be exercised from England over the colonial branches of its Church, including even in matters of doctrine---led to an appeal in 1866 by the Bishop of Toronto and the Archbishop of Montreal for a "Pan-Anglican Synod" to be convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which was eventually convoked at Lambeth Palace in 1867, as Father Webber explains. But the reader who has diligently pursued all the foregoing links now has, hopefully, a little more appreciation for what the anonymous reductor set out to accomplish in boiling down Father Webber's account into those first two sentences of the Sunday insert. 

It is thus ironic, to say the least, that the original Lambeth Conference was called in response to a perceived threat to the organic unity of the Church of England as it had spread itself into the wider world. The initial instinct of the bishops was to circle the wagons, and to get rid of those like the African liberal Bishop John Colenso, who tried to adapt Church teachings to native ways (particularly in regard to Zulu polygamy). Indeed, the first Lambeth Conference was nearly derailed by the insistence of those who had tried to depose Bishop Colenso, and those who sympathized with their views, on seeking a Conference-backed consensus that they had been right in doing so, notwithstanding the judgment of the Privy Council. They did succeed in getting the Conference to endorse the call for his replacement, and this led in turn to the creation of a separate but parallel diocese occupying the same geographical territory as Colenso's diocese. (Shades of San Joaquin! This nineteenth-century precedent for the current situation in TEC was backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, then as now. It also led to a call for a "voluntary spiritual tribunal", which never gained momentum and has been unfavorably likened to today's call for an Anglican Covenant.)

The second half of this week's insert takes up the subjects addressed at the next two Lambeth Conferences. Because of the ongoing manipulations of our anonymous reductor, that portion of the insert deserves a separate treatment on its own, which I shall post later. For the moment, I think it is more important to call attention to what has been manufactured (or more accurately, cast---since we are dealing here with a preformed mold) about the Conference's origin.

The Lambeth Conference of 2008 threatens to derail over the exclusion of an American bishop (or, alternatively, over the inclusion of many American bishops) advocating a teaching that is unacceptable to the majority of traditional Anglicans, most of whom are in Africa. The irony that we have arrived at such a point, 140 years after the first Lambeth Conference threatened to derail over the expulsion of an African bishop over teachings that were unacceptable to the majority of traditional Anglicans in England and America, is a history lesson that has been lost (or purposefully erased) in the reduction of Father Webber's articles. And as we continue in this series of counterbalancing Lambeth essays, I hope readers will come to appreciate much more about the heritage of Lambeth, and what its real relevance is to the Church today, than what you can read in your Sunday bulletin.

[There is a printable version of this essay here.]


  1. As always, a better analysis than I could provide. I too smelled a rat when I read this insert last Sunday as I commented at my blog. The only consolation I have is the realization that this attempt to rewrite history probably went unread by 99% of the congregation.

  2. There's nothing wrong with your June 1 analysis, either, Underground Pewster. Together, we can keep the 1% from being led astray!