Every ten years, Anglican bishops from around the globe gather in England for the Lambeth Conference. The conference takes its name from Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which housed the first conference of 76 Bishops in 1867. Since 1978 the conference has been held in Canterbury, but retains its original name.
The Beginning of Lambeth in a Globalizing Church
The beginning of the Lambeth Conference was closely related to the expansion of Anglicanism around the world. Though Anglicanism first became international through 17th and 18th century English colonial and imperial activities, the 19th century saw a more focused missionary effort to native peoples, operating both alongside and sometimes against the priorities of the British Empire. For example, in 1864, three years before he would host the first Lambeth Conference, Archbishop Charles Longley consecrated Samuel Ajayi Crowther missionary Bishop to West Africa, the first native African to be made a Bishop.
The Lambeth Conference therefore provided an opportunity for collegial reconnection and mutual encouragement by an expanding and global network of Bishops. American Bishop John Hopkins of Vermont called it “communion in the primitive style,” referring to the international character of the gathered Bishops. To be sure, in the first few Conferences, a majority of Bishops present were still located in England, and a larger majority were Englishmen. But gradually, as Anglicanism took root and grew, the number of Bishops attending grew, with a growing proportion of non-Englishmen, until the Englishmen became a minority. A survey of every Lambeth Conferences with the presiding Archbishop and number of Bishops attending is included below in Appendix A.
From the beginning, alongside times of worship and fellowship, Lambeth conferences have offered opportunity to discuss, debate, and vote upon the pressing issues of the day. The resulting Lambeth “Resolutions” frequently express the mind of the Anglican Communion at the time, and have often held significant ecclesial and cultural influence. In this regard the Lambeth Conference bears partial resemblance to the Ecumenical Councils of the early church.
However, because each Anglican province retains canonical autonomy, these resolutions do not function with any ecclesial or legal force, and there is no enforcement mechanism in cases of protracted disagreement. An alternative analogy might be made to the United Nations, which functions similarly as an international deliberative body without any mechanism of enforcement.
Notable Lambeth Resolutions
Here we’ll briefly sketch three notable Resolutions from different eras of the Lambeth Conference.
The first Lambeth conference, in 1867, considered the controversial Biblical interpretation of John Colenso, missionary Bishop of Natal in modern South Africa, and argued that the situation impacted the communion as a whole, a concept later developed in the terms of “interdependence.” Heresies and schisms in one part of the communion, the Bishops insisted, affect the Communion as a whole. Thus, the practice of autonomy in global Anglicanism should not be considered a license to sin or to depart from the faith; as Paul says, it is “for freedom Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1). The Anglican Communion must be characterized by both autonomy and interdependence.
The sixth Lambeth Conference was held in 1920, delayed by two years on account of the Great War (World War I). 252 Bishops gathered from all over the world, almost all deeply impacted by the long conflict of the preceding years. In that time there was a general sense that somehow Christianity had failed, as multiple putatively Christian nations had thrown themselves into conflict with each other, with battlefields more brutal than any previously known, to the cost of tens of millions of lives. The Lambeth Conference therefore issued an “Appeal to All Christian People,” a document recognizing the varying spiritual gifts in both episcopal and non-episcopal denominational traditions. Drawing upon the logic of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, previously affirmed at the 1888 Lambeth Conference, the Appeal presented a powerful vision of ecumenical reunion based in scripture, the creeds, the sacraments, and the episcopate. It became a central document in the subsequent developments in 20th ecumenism, influencing movements as divergent as Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, and the merging of Anglicans and Presbyterians in the Church of South India.
Arguably the most notable Lambeth Conference was its thirteenth gathering, held in 1998. With 749 Bishops present, it was the most highly attended Lambeth Conference ever, and a large majority came from the Global South, representing the dramatic growth of Anglicanism outside of England, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. This Conference produced an extensive set of resolutions, the most remarkable of which was Resolution 1.10 on Human Sexuality, which offered an affirmation of the Biblical definition of marriage, as a union between one man and one woman. The vote on the resolution was 526-70 (with 45 abstentions). The text of Resolution 1.10 is included in Appendix B below.
The Aftermath of Resolution I.10
Resolution I.10 was already a major news item in 1998, but became even more controversial in subsequent years as the Episcopal Church (USA) and other Provinces began to violate the Resolution. The major flashpoint was in 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated Gene Robinson as the first partnered homosexual Bishop in the Anglican communion. The reaction throughout the Anglican Communion was swift, with many Bishops, especially in Africa, calling for the discipline of the Episcopal Church (USA). The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was in a particular predicament, since he was personally supportive of same-sex unions, but presided over a church and a communion that were officially opposed on account of Biblical teaching. Rowan held an emergency meeting of Primates, which resulted in the Windsor Report, which called for a moratorium on the ordination of those in same-sex unions. One consequence of this process was that Archbishop Rowan did not invite Gene Robinson to the fourteenth Lambeth Conference in 2008.
For many Bishops, however, this moratorium and disinvitation was not a sufficient response; what was needed was a clear reaffirmation of Resolution 1.10, and discipline of those who violated it, including the Bishops who had approved the consecration of Gene Robinson. But Rowan refused these additional steps, and also organized Lambeth 2008 to avoid the taking of Resolutions. In response, a large group of Global South Bishops, including all the Bishops of Nigeria, Uganda, and Rwanda, decided to boycott Lambeth 2008. Instead, they gathered in Jerusalem for the “Global Anglican Future Conference,” colloquially known as GAFCON. There, they adopted the Jerusalem Declaration, and called for the creation of a new Anglican province in America, which subsequently became the Anglican Church in North America(ACNA). GAFCON represented the beginning of a new Anglicanism, bound not to Canterbury but rather to the Bible. This website, Anglican Compass, is committed to Biblical authority and therefore aligned with the GAFCON movement in Anglicanism.
Excursus: Why So Much Controversy Over Marriage?
Pausing for a moment from our analysis of the Lambeth Conference, let’s consider why it is that the topic of marriage has been so divisive within global Anglicanism. Though some have pointed to the differing cultures of the Western World and the Global South, this can only offer part of the answer. There are many cultural differences across the Anglican Communion that are experienced as valuable diversity, or as understandable causes of divergent opinion, or as tolerable differences within a global church. But the marriage question has been uniquely controversial, and uniquely resistant to efforts at effective mediation. Why? Two answers suggest themselves.
First, the definition of marriage is explicit in the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Homilies, and implicit in the 39 Articles of Religion. In other words, to change the definition of marriage is to go against the classic formularies of Anglican liturgy, pastoral guidance, and theology. It is nearly impossible to imagine the English reformers of the 16th century supporting the redefinition of marriage.
Second, and more fundamentally, the Bible leaves no doubt that marriage is a union of a man and a woman. Moreover, this is not a side-issue in the Bible. The Bible begins with a marriage, the “one flesh” union of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, and it ends with a marriage, the “marriage supper of the lamb” in Revelation 19. Indeed, marriage provides a basic conceptual frame to the entire Biblical narrative, which features God as the husband of his people, Christ as the bridegroom to the church. This in fact is what Paul says of marriage in Ephesians 5, that this “mystery” of union across difference applies to “Christ and the church.” This is also the context which makes sense of the Bible’s repeated denunciation of same-sex relations, not only in Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20, but also in many New Testament passages, including Mark 7, Matthew 15, Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6. Finally, Jesus himself affirms in Mark 10 that marriage is a union of a man and a woman.
Given the absolutely clear, univocal Biblical witness to marriage, Anglicanism simply cannot change on marriage and remain Anglicanism. Anglicanism has long prided itself on being a reformed and thoroughly Biblical religion. We claim scripture as our highest authority, above tradition or a magisterial teaching office. And so, if we redefine marriage, we are hypocrites. We cannot redefine marriage and remain Anglicans in any authentic sense. And that is why the Global Anglican Bishops, who are willing in many other matters to accept cultural or even theological differences, cannot accept the redefinition of marriage. This is not a secondary issue, but rather a primary issue of fundamental relevance to the gospel, because it implicates Biblical authority.
Lambeth 2022 and the Future of the Lambeth Conference
Anglican Bishops gathered together again in summer 2022 for the fifteenth Lambeth Conference, under the leadership of Archbishop Justin Welby. The churches of Nigeria, Uganda, and Rwanda again boycotted the conference, an absence evident in the photo at the top of this article (by Neil Turner for the Lambeth Conference). Attendance dropped for the second straight time, down to around 650. Again, Resolutions were not allowed. The Bishops of the ACNA were not invited. The most significant change was that this time Bishops in same-sex unions were invited to the conference, and a larger number of Bishops openly opposed the Biblical definition of marriage. More than 100 Bishops signed a letter supporting same-sex unions by “affirming the holiness of their love wherever it is found in committed relationships.” Archbishop Justin, meanwhile, issued a letter reaffirming that Resolution 1.10 is the majority view of the Anglican Communion, but he stopped short of himself endorsing the Biblical definition of marriage. Later, Justin also stated that he would not discipline any church that redefined marriage.
It is no overstatement to say that the Lambeth Conference is in a moment of deep crisis. There are now emerging two Anglican Communions: one, in the western world of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, and increasingly England, which is accommodating a secular culture and giving up on Biblical authority; the other, chiefly in the Global South, together with those Christians in the western world who dissent from secular culture and hold to the authority of Scripture. Presumably, the next Archbishop of Canterbury will call for a Lambeth Conference in 2032 or thereabouts. By then, the emerging division will be even more stark, and he will be forced to pick between the two. Rowan and Justin have tried to have it both ways, to keep everyone “walking together,” papering over fundamental differences while avoiding the taking of resolutions. But this cannot work forever. The next Archbishop has the opportunity to take a clear Biblical stand, to discipline unscriptural innovation, and to allow the gathered Bishops of the global Communion to again issue Resolutions affirming and applying the Biblical witness. If not, more Biblical Bishops will boycott, and the Lambeth Conference will slide into irrelevance as a gathering of the revisionist Bishops of rapidly declining churches.
Appendix A: The Growth of the Lambeth Conference
Here’s an overview of the fifteen Lambeth Conferences (year, convening Archbishop) with the number of Bishops present. The number of Bishops steadily grew, reaching a high of 749 in 1998. After the Communion failed to discipline provinces violating Resolution I.10, attendance dropped in 2008 and 2022 due to the boycotting of multiple African churches, including Nigeria, Uganda, and Rwanda.
Lambeth I (1867, Charles Longley)
Lambeth II (1878, Campbell Tait)
Lambeth III (1888, Edward Benson)
Lambeth IV (1897, Frederick Temple)
Lambeth V (1908, Randall Davidson)
Lambeth VI (1920, Randall Davidson)
Lambeth VII (1930, Cosmo Lang)
Lambeth VIII (1948, Geoffrey Fisher)
Lambeth IX (1958, Geoffrey Fisher)
Lambeth X (1968, Michael Ramsey)
Lambeth XI (1978, Donald Coggan)
Lambeth XII (1988, Robert Runcie)
Lambeth XIII (1998, George Carey)
Lambeth XIV (2008, Rowan Williams)
Lambeth XV (2022, Justin Welby)
Appendix B: Resolution 1.10
This Conference…In view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage;
Recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God’s transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;
While rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;
Cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions…