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By Chuck Collins
June 14, 2022

The 2022 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops will meet in a few weeks in Canterbury England. This used to be a newsworthy event when African, Asian, and American bishops met together to show the ‘conciliar’ unity of the worldwide Anglican Communion. I remember when pictures of the purple-shirted leaders of the Anglican Communion flashed on news screens everywhere, but today no one cares. The Anglican bishops and primates (title for the presiding or senior bishop overseeing one of the 38 or 39 provinces that compose the worldwide Communion) that represent the majority of Anglicans will not even attend this year because the Lambeth Conference convener, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has shown himself to be an obsolete figurehead, a stone statue in a corner of an English tea garden with moss and vines growing over him. His leadership doesn’t matter.

The life and death of the Lambeth Conferences tradition shows that Anglicans are, and have always been, united by confession, not by some invented structure, whether it be Lambeth Conferences, Five Instruments of Unity, or Primates meetings. Theologian Frederick Shriver was right in his use of “modern” when he wrote about this, but he failed to show the confessional nature of Anglicanism: “The ‘conciliar’ nature of the Anglican Communion is perhaps one of the least recognized, and yet most characteristic, features of modern Anglicanism” (The Study of Anglicanism). And the Rt. Rev. Bob Duncan missed the mark altogether when he announced that “Anglicanism is neither papal, nor confessional, it is rather apostolic and conciliar” (address “Anglicanism Come of Age”). Certainly the Episcopal Church bishops are giddy about the sherry-drinking excuse to vacation in the English countryside, but, even though the bishops of the Anglican Church in North America are not invited, the ACNA is still in danger of losing its way to the extent that we are not clear about our confessional identity.

In recent times it was popular for Anglicans to define themselves in terms of their relationship to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Communion Partners pushed the idea that to be “in communion with Canterbury” was more important than even maintaining the apostolic teaching of Holy Scripture and continuity with historic Anglicanism in its defining formularies. In recent decades Anglicans have seen the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury balloon in stature from being the first among equals (among Anglican primates and bishops) to almost pope-like status. This constitutes a stunning shift in understanding, both theologically as well as how it relates to institutional identity.

In 1867 bishops around the world were invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to meet in England for the first Lambeth Conference (so-called, because Lambeth Palace in London is the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and “conference” so to distinguish it from the more weighty synods and councils of the church). Subsequent Lambeth Conferences have taken place roughly every ten years since then. With uncanny foresight, the 1948 Lambeth Conference affirmed a vision of dispersed authority, rather than locating power in a single bishop: “Former Lambeth Conferences have wisely rejected proposals for a formal primacy of Canterbury... [The] authority which binds the Anglican Communion together is therefore seen to be moral and spiritual, resting on the truth of the Gospel, and on a charity which is patient and willing to defer to the common mind.” More recently in 2005, Anglican Primates who gathered in Dromantine (Ireland) expressed their concern about the unprecedented growth of Canterbury’s power and influence: “We also have further questions concerning the development of the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Council of Advice.

While we welcome the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury as that of one who speaks to us as primus inter pares (first among equals) about the realities we face as a Communion, we are cautious of any development which would seem to imply the creation of an international jurisdiction which could override our proper provincial autonomy.” Even the recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke of the overstated view of his own bishopric: “I think someone recently said that ‘the path to heaven doesn’t necessarily lie through Lambeth.’ I agree entirely. The path to heaven lies solely through Jesus Christ our Savior and the unity he gives, and the only use and integrity of the instruments of unity is when they serve that.”

Seminary professor, William Witt, addressed this topic, noting the complete absence of references to the See of Canterbury in any of the classical Anglican writings (including the Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer). He concludes:

"If one actually reads Cranmer or Jewel or Hooker et al, it becomes quite clear that (as they broke with Rome) they would have had no hesitation to break with Canterbury should Canterbury break with the doctrines and practices which encapsulate the gospel — because the identity of Anglicanism does not lie in communion with an historic see but in the doctrines and practices that adhere to the gospel."

All Anglicans agree that Canterbury is an historic see and that the Archbishop of Canterbury is the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion - as first among equals. But it is a gross distortion of any historical Anglican definition which gives Canterbury the extraordinary authority over the church that some want to give him. Anglicans have consistently said that Canterbury’s word is only as good as he upholds God’s Word, and his authority is only as strong as he upholds the Anglican heritage. To give our loyalty to an individual or institution is simply misplaced loyalty. The 2008 Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON), a gathering of Anglican primates, bishops and leaders from around the world, got it right when they stated: “While acknowledging the nature of Canterbury as an historic see, we do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury.” Being Anglican, therefore, means adherence to a received theology and heritage; it does not revolve primarily around an ecclesiastical structure.

The Archbishop of Canterbury cannot rescue Anglicanism and the global Communion from the storm in which it finds itself, as huge divisions are formed from the collision of progressive theologies with biblical and catholic Christianity. There are no political solutions to theological problems. Our real hope is what the Prayer Book calls “the substance of the faith,” and what the Bible calls “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” This, and only this, gives us direction and hope for the future of the Anglican Communion.


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