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Doing the Lambeth Walk

By Bruce Kaye - posted Monday, 30 June 2008


The decision by Peter Jensen that none of the Anglican bishops in Sydney would go to the Lambeth Conference is another example of Anglicans living out their difficulties in public.

It is an honourable and admirable tradition. The first Lambeth Conference in 1867 was an earlier example. It also was boycotted by a number of English bishops including the archbishop of York. They objected to it on the grounds that the conference might make some decisions which could affect the Church of England.

The current Lambeth walk out is because the resolutions from the 1998 conference have not been enforced in North America. It is an ironic turn around from the first conference.

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The Lambeth conference has always said it was a purely consultative conference and not a decision making body. But in order for a boycott to look as if it is about something substantial it helps to portray the conference as if it had some kind of power to decide for the Anglican provinces around the world. It does not.

Peter Jensen says the current dispute about homosexuality in the public life of the church is a dispute about whether we accept the authority of the Bible. But that is not really so. Undoubtedly any decision on sexuality will involve paying the closest attention to the Bible. It is the ultimate authority for Anglicans.

Portraying the present dispute as being about the authority of the Bible frames the argument so as to presume that the Bible is the only authority. In this context it is not about accepting or rejecting a doctrine of “scripture alone” in such decision making. Scripture alone is held as a personal opinion by many, including some Anglicans, but it is nowhere to be found in the formularies constitution or laws of the Anglican Church. The question at issue is the place of homosexuality in the official life of the church. It is harder to make this a cause for separation than the authority of the Bible.

This question came up in North America largely as a result of changes in cultural attitudes in the wider society. Those cultural conditions do not arise in Nigeria, quite the opposite situation exists. Gay and Lesbian people are persecuted. In responding to those changes North American Anglicans disagreed among themselves. In attempting to relate to wider cultural attitudes the question has become, how far can or should the church go. Cultural disengagement is clearly not an option. Anglicans have generally looked for critical engagement, though not always successfully.

The point was put sharply in January last year by Peter Akinola, the Primate of the Anglican church in Nigeria, when he announced that the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem (GAFCON), to which Peter Jensen is contributing, was in sharp contrast to Lambeth.

The word of God has precedence over any culture. Those of us who will abide with the Word of God, come rain come fire, are those who are in GAFCON. Those who say it does not matter are the ones who are attending Lambeth. There might be a view, for whatever it is worth, that they want to be there to observe what is going on. But Uganda, Rwanda, Sydney, Nigeria: we are not going to Lambeth conference.

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“For whatever it is worth” is a somewhat diminished way of referring to the obligations of Christian relationships, especially with those who share a particular faith tradition and with whom we have professed institutional connections.

It is said to be a matter of conscience on the grounds that the offence of the North American churches is so bad that they cannot be associated with. But is not the Christian model to associate with sinners and tax collectors? And is it not a commendable activity for Christians to engage and argue face to face with their fellow Christians when they disagree with them?

It is not really a question of conscience. It is a matter of judgment and it is a great pity that a judgment has been made which refuses to engage with difference within the Christian community. There is a significant number of Anglicans in Sydney who would like to see some Sydney presence at Lambeth. They may not constitute the majority on the Standing Committee or the diocesan synod, but they are still Anglicans in Sydney.

It may not be possible at this stage for the Archbishop to go but surely it is still not too late for one of the Sydney bishops to be allowed to go to Lambeth and walk the talk.

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About the Author

The Revd Dr Bruce Kaye is a Professorial Associate in the School of theology at Charles Sturt and a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of History at UNSW. He is formerly the General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia (1994-2004) and he is the author of Introduction to World Anglicanism, Cambridge University Press, 2008 and Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith; The Anglican Experiment, 2009. See www.brucekaye.net.

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