Statements on the nature and development of the Anglican Communion from the first Lambeth Conference to the Anglican Covenant – Part I

The fact that the Lambeth Conference is going to be held next year means that in the coming months there will be much discussion about the nature of the Anglican Communion. In order to provide a historical perspective on these discussions, I have decided to post a paper I first wrote in 2010 which uses primary sources to trace the development of Anglican thinking about the nature of the Anglican Communion from the time of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 up to the issuing of the proposed Anglican Covenant in 2009.

Because the paper is 81 pages long, I shall be posting it in three parts over the next three weeks.

Part I:  From 1867 – 1930


The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of statements about the nature and development of the Anglican Communion and its relations with the Church universal made by representative bodies of the Communion, or representative individuals speaking on behalf of the Communion, from the time of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 until the Anglican Communion Covenant in 2009.

The overview starts with the 1867 Lambeth Conference because this was the first time that representatives from the Anglican Communion as a whole met to take counsel together and as such it is the first time that statements about the nature of the Anglican Communion are made on behalf of the Communion as a whole. The overview finishes with the Anglican Covenant both because this is the most recent statement about the nature of the Anglican Communion produced on behalf of the Communion as a whole and because, as we shall see, what the Covenant has to say about the nature and development of the Anglican Communion reflects the way that thinking about this topic has developed since 1867.

This paper will take a chronological approach, starting in 1867 and looking at the statements in the order that they were produced. At the end of the paper there will be a concluding section that notes the key issues that arise from the statements and explains how the development of thinking about the nature of Anglicanism reflected in the statements finds its culmination in what is said in the Anglican Covenant.

1.The Lambeth Conference 1867

The Lambeth Conference of 1867 was convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley, at the request of the Canadian Anglican bishops, and other bishops from around the world, and with the agreement of the Convocation of the Province of Canterbury in the Church of England. As Longley himself explained the matter in the letter sent out to those invited to attend:

‘The Metropolitan and Bishops of Canada, last year, addressed to the two Houses of the Convocation of Canterbury the expression of their desire that I should be moved to invite the Bishops of our Indian and Colonial Episcopate to meet myself and the Home Bishops for brotherly communion and conference.

The consequence of that appeal has been that both Houses of Convocation have addressed to me their dutiful request that I should invite the attendance not only of our Home and Colonial Bishops, but of all who are avowedly in communion with our Church. The same request was unanimously preferred to me at a numerous gathering of English, Irish, and Colonial Archbishops and bishops recently assembled at Lambeth; at which – I rejoice to record it – we had the counsel and concurrence of an eminent Bishop of the Church in the United States of America. – the Bishop of Illinois.

Moved by these requests, and by the expressed concurrence therein of other members of the Home and Colonial Episcopate, who could not be present at our meeting. I have now humbly resolved – not, I humbly trust without the guidance of GOD the Holy Ghost – to grant the grave request, and call together the meeting so earnestly desired.’[1]

Longley was clear in his letter of invitation that this Conference ‘would not be competent to make declarations or lay definitions on points of doctrine.’ [2] Nevertheless, the seventy six bishops who attended the Conference made four key statements about the nature of Anglicanism.  

The first is contained in the Introduction to the resolutions of the Conference. It declares that the resolutions have been produced by the:

‘Bishops of the Holy Catholic Church in visible Communion with the United Church of England and Ireland, professing the Faith delivered to us in Holy Scripture, maintained by the Primitive Church and by the Fathers of the English Reformation.’[3]

This statement is significant because it implies that the Anglican Communion is part of a greater whole, namely the ‘Holy Catholic Church,’ and that it is defined by visible communion with the United Church of England and Ireland and profession of the faith taught in Scripture and maintained by the Early Church and the English Reformers. The fact that communion is said to be ‘visible’ indicates that the fellowship between the Anglican churches had an outward shape as well as an inward substance and the fact that the defining characteristic of these churches is their communion with one another indicates that these churches are not simply linked by being the churches of the British Empire (this was not true for example of the American Church, bishops from which attended the Conference).

As well as being in visible communion these churches are also said to profess the same faith and the way this faith is defined is indicative of the diversity within the Anglican tradition, the reference to the ‘Primitive Church’ reflecting the emphasis of High Church bishops and the reference to the ‘Fathers of the English Reformation reflecting the emphasis of the Evangelical bishops. 

The second statement is also contained in the Introduction to the resolutions of the Conference. It declares that the bishops of the Anglican Communion assembled at Lambeth ‘view with deep sorrow the divided condition of the flock of Christ throughout the world’, long for the fulfilment of Christ’s prayer for the unity of the Church contained in John 17:21 and believe that:

‘..unity will be most effectually promoted by maintaining the Faith in its purity and integrity, as taught in the Holy Scriptures, held by the Primitive Church, summed up in the Creeds, and affirmed by the undisputed General Councils, and by drawing each of us closer to our common Lord, by giving ourselves to much prayer and intercession, by the cultivation of a spirit of charity, and a love of the Lord’s appearing.’[4]  

This statement is significant because it indicates that from the time of the 1867 Lambeth Conference onwards the Anglican Communion was marked by a concern for the unity of the Church and also because it indicates that in 1867 it was felt that unity could best be achieved through the maintenance of the faith found in the Scriptures, upheld by the Early Church, and summarised in the creeds and through a growth in appropriate forms of individual piety.

The third is Resolution IV of the Conference which declares that in the opinion of the Conference:

‘Unity in Faith and Discipline will be best maintained among the several branches of the Anglican Communion by due and canonical subordination of the Synods of the several branches to the higher authority of a Synod or Synods above them.’[5]

This statement implies that unity in faith and discipline across the Communion is something that ought to be maintained and it sees that best way of achieving this as being through the development of a hierarchical structure of Synods with the Synods of the various churches of the Communion being subordinate to a Synod or Synods operating at a higher level within the Communion. The nature of this Synod or these Synods is not further defined.

The fourth is Resolution VIII of the Conference which states that:

‘…in order to the binding of the Churches of our Colonial Empire and the Missionary churches beyond them in the closest union with the Mother Church, it is necessary that they receive and maintain the standards of Faith and Doctrine as now in use in that Church. That, nevertheless, each Province should have the right to make such adaptations and additions to the services of the Church as its peculiar circumstances may require. Provided, that no change or addition be made inconsistent with the spirit and principles of the Book of Common Prayer, and that all such changes be subject to revision by any Synod of the Anglican Communion in which the said Province shall be represented.’ [6] 

There are a number of points of interest in this statement

  • It is seen as important that the colonial and missionary churches should remain in ‘the closest union’ with the Mother-Church, which at this stage was the United Church of England and Ireland. The hierarchical nature of the relationships then existing in the Communion are clear here. The Church of England and Ireland is the Mother Church and the other churches need to keep in conformity with her.
  • The way to achieve this is the acceptance and maintenance of the faith and doctrine of the Mother-Church.
  • Nevertheless this does not preclude adaptation of the services of the Book of Common Prayer in the light of local circumstances providing that the ‘spirit and principles’ of the Prayer Book are maintained and providing that such adaptations are subject to revision by the sort of representative Anglican Synod envisaged in Resolution IV.

2.The Lambeth Conference 1878  

Although a number of bishops, including the Archbishop of York, had not attended the 1867 Conference it was felt to have been a successes and, again after prompting from the Canadian Church, it was decided to hold a second Conference in 1878. This Conference did not produce any resolutions, but its thinking is expressed in the reports from the various committees of the Conference.

The Conference considered the nature of the Anglican Communion in the report of the committee ‘on the best mode of maintaining union among the various churches of the Anglican Communion.’

This report begins by noting with thankfulness ‘the essential and evident unity in which the Church of England and the Churches in visible communion with her have always been bound together.’[7] This unity, it says, consists in the fact that:

‘United under One Divine Head in the Fellowship of the One Catholic and Apostolic Church, holding the One Faith revealed in Holy Writ, defined in the Creeds and maintained by the Primitive Church, receiving the same Canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary to salvation – these churches teach the same Word of God, partake of the same divinely ordained Sacraments, through the ministry of the same Apostolic orders, and worship one God and Father through the same Lord Jesus Christ, by the same Holy and Divine Spirit, Who is given to those that believe, to guide them into all truth.’[8]

The report then goes on to explain that alongside this unity there is also a ‘variety of custom, discipline, and form of worship’ resulting from the exercise by the churches of the Communion of the principle laid down in Article XXXIV of the Thirty Nine Articles that each ‘particular or national Church’ has the right ‘to ordain, change or abolish ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.’[9]

The report declares that at the present there is no grounds for anxiety about this diversity, but it notes that the desire has been expressed to adopt some ‘practical and efficient methods’ both in order ‘to guard against possible sources of disunion in the future’ and in order ‘to manifest that true and substantial agreement which exists among these increasingly numerous Churches.’ [10]  The report sees the obvious method of maintaining unity as being to follow the example of the Apostles in Acts 15 and of the Primitive Church by holding a Council of the Church. However it regards the idea of holding a General Council of the Church as ‘unhappily but obviously impossible’ and also rejects as too difficult the idea of convening a ‘Synod of all the Anglican Churches.’[11]

Having rejected these two ideas, the report suggests that the solution to the problem of ‘combining together for consultation representatives of Churches so differently situated and administered’ may instead lie with the approach taken at the two Lambeth Conferences of holding a ‘Conference of Bishops called together by the Archbishop of Canterbury and meeting under his presidency.’  It also suggests that such conferences ‘might with advantage be invested in future with somewhat larger liberty as to the initiation and selection of subjects for discussion’ through, for example, the establishment of a committee representing the churches of the Communion which could receive communications from the bishops and then draw up ‘a scheme of subjects to be discussed.’[12]

As well as advocating the further development of the Lambeth Conferences the report puts forward three principles of Church order which it sees as being ‘of great importance for the maintenance of union among the Churches of our Communion.’ These principles are:

‘First, that the duly certified action of every national or particular Church, and of each ecclesiastical province (or diocese not included in a province), in the exercise of its own discipline, should be respected by all the other Churches, and by their individual members.

Secondly, that when a diocese, or territorial sphere of administration, has been constituted by the authority of any Church or province of this Communion within its own limits, no bishop or other clergyman of any other Church should exercise his functions within that diocese without the consent of the bishop thereof.

Thirdly, that no bishop should authorise to officiate in his diocese a clergyman coming from another Church or province, unless such clergyman present letters testimonial, countersigned by the bishop of the diocese from which he comes; such letters to be, as nearly as possible, in the form adopted by such Church or province in the case of the transfer of a clergyman from one diocese to another.’[13]

Finally, the report touches on six other areas which it thinks are important for Anglican unity. It calls for dioceses to unite together in provinces, for churches to co-operate together in common work such as the creation of schools for training native ministers, for clergy visiting other churches to take commendatory letters from their bishop, for information about the churches of the Communion and about representative bodies such as the Lambeth Conferences to be disseminated across the Communion and for the establishment of a day of prayer for the unity of Christendom.

The last area which the report touches on is the area of ‘diversities in worship.’ Here it notes that the Book of Common Prayer has been a ‘principal bond of union’ between the churches of the Anglican Communion and that ‘such communion in worship may be endangered by excessive diversities in ritual.’ It argues that while ‘such large elasticity in the forms of worship is desirable as will give wide scope to all legitimate expressions of devotional feeling’ this needs to be balanced by ‘the apostolic precept that all things be done unto edifying’ and by the Catholic principle that ‘order and obedience, even at the sacrifice of personal preferences and tastes, lie at the foundation of Christian unity, and are even essential to the successful maintenance of the faith.’[14]

3. The Lambeth Conference of 1888

The Lambeth Quadrilateral

Following the success of the 1878 Conference, Lambeth Conferences then began to be held every ten years or so. The Lambeth Conference of 1888 considered the question of the basis on which particular Anglican churches might enter into union with other churches, what it called ‘Home Reunion.’ Building on a resolution passed by the General Convention of the American Church in 1886, Resolution 11 of the Conference declares that:

‘..the following articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made towards home reunion:

(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.

(b) The Apostles’ Creed, as the baptismal symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.

(c ) The two sacraments ordained by Christ himself – Baptism and the Supper of the Lord – ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution, and of the elements ordained by him.

(d) The historic episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of his Church.’[15]

The encyclical letter from the Conference explains that reason that these articles are necessary is because although Anglicans are ready ‘to enter into brotherly conference with any of those who may desire intercommunion with us in a more or less perfect form’ nevertheless:

‘…we must not be unfaithful stewards of the great deposit entrusted to us. We cannot desert our position either as to faith or discipline. That concord would, in our judgement, be neither true nor desirable which should be produced by such surrender.’ [16]

Authoritative standards of doctrine and worship

The Conference also considered the subject of authoritative standards of doctrine and worship. Addressing this subject, the encyclical letter from the Conference reiterates what was said by previous Conferences about the faith held in common by the churches of the Communion. It also declares that the Church of England’s standards of doctrine and worship should be set before the overseas churches of the Communion in unmodified form, but that it would be wrong to impose the Thirty Nine Articles in their entirety as conditions of communion:

It conformity with the practice of the former Conferences we clear that we are united under our Divine head in the Fellowship of the one Catholic and Apostolic Church, holding the one Faith revealed in Holy Writ, defined in the Creeds, maintained by the primitive Church, and affirmed by the undisputed Ecumenical Councils; as standards of doctrine and worship alike we recognise the Prayer Book with its Catechism, the Ordinal, and the Thirty-nine Articles – the special heritage the Church of England, and, to a greater or lesser extent, received by all the churches of our Communion.

We desire that these standards should be set before the foreign churches in their purity and simplicity. A certain liberty of treatment must be extended to the cases of native and growing churches on which it would be unreasonable to impose, as conditions of communion, the whole of the Thirty-nine articles, coloured as they are in language, and form by the peculiar circumstances under which they were originally drawn up.  On the other hand it would be impossible for us to share with them in the matter of Holy Orders, as in complete intercommunion, without satisfactory evidence that they hold substantially the same form of doctrine as ourselves. It ought not be difficult, much less impossible, to formulate articles, in accordance with our own standards of doctrine and worship, the acceptance of which should be required of all ordained in such churches.[17]

The report of the Conference committee considering the issue of authoritative standards notes that there are variations between the Book of Common Prayer and the rites used in Scottish, American and Irish churches, but it strongly deprecates:

‘…any further material variation in the text of the existing Sacramental offices of the Church, or of the Ordinal, than is at present recognised among us, unless with the advice of some Conference or Council representing the whole Communion.’[18]

In a similar vein, Resolution 10 of the Conference declares;

‘That, inasmuch as the Book of Common Prayer is not the possession of one diocese or province, but of all, and that a revision in one portion of the Anglican Communion must therefore be extensively felt, this Conference is of the opinion that no particular portion of the Church should undertake revision without seriously considering the possible effect of such action on other branches of the Church.’[19]

4. The Lambeth Conference of 1897

The organisation of the Communion

At the 1897 Conference a committee was appointed to consider the organisation of the Anglican Communion. The report of this committee declares that:

‘Each decade as it passes brings out more clearly the importance of our duty to maintain and develop the unity and coherence of the Anglican Communion.  We learn to realise more and more explicitly the value of the unique combination of respect for authority and consciousness of freedom in the truth, which distinguishes the great body in which God has called us to minister.  We begin to perceive in what degree it may impress the rest of Christendom, and in union, in God’s good time, with the rest of Christendom, may impress the world in accordance with our Lord’s desire (S. John xvii, 21, 23). We also grow more conscious, as time goes on, what are the lessons which the different portions of our Communion may learn from one another. Yet at the same time we perceive that there are tendencies within and without which require to be directed or guarded against with the greatest watchfulness and foresight, if this characteristic type of unity is to be maintained and thus to appeal to the intellect, the imagination and the heart of mankind.

In order to help guard against these tendencies and to maintain the unity of the Communion the committee recommended that in addition to the Lambeth Conference being held every ten years and its resolutions disseminated throughout the Communion, an additional consultative body for the Communion should also be established.

This recommendation is reflected in Resolution 5 of the Conference which declares:

That it is advisable that a consultative body should be formed to which resort may be had, if desired, by the national churches, provinces, and extra-provincial dioceses of the Anglican Communion either for information or for advice, and that the Archbishop of Canterbury be requested to take such steps as he may think most desirable for the creation of this consultative body.’[20]

The encyclical letter from the Conference explains that this new body:

‘…must win its way by the services which it will be able to render to the working of the Church. It can have no other than a moral authority, which will be developed out of its action.’[21]

Adaptions to the Prayer Book and additional services

Another committee considered the question of adding additional services to those in the Book of Common Prayer or developing local adaptations of it. This committee concluded that this was a matter which came under the liturgical authority, or ius liturgicum of the bishops and this conclusion was reflected in Resolutions 45 and 46 of the Conference which declare that:

‘…this Conference recognises the exclusive right of each bishop to put forth or sanction additional services for use within his jurisdiction, subject to such limitations as may be imposed by the provincial or other lawful authority.’[22]

and that:

‘….this Conference also recognises in each bishop within his jurisdiction the exclusive right of adapting the services in the Book of Common Prayer to local circumstances, and also of directing or sanctioning the use of additional prayers, subject to such limitations as may be imposed by provincial or other lawful authority, provided also that any such adaptation shall not affect the doctrinal teaching or value of the service or passage thus adapted.’[23]

A further committee considered the subject of foreign missions. Among its recommendations were that, in line with the principle of having only one bishop in each place, overlapping episcopal jurisdictions of different Anglican churches should be avoided in the mission field. This recommendation became Resolution 24 of the Conference:

‘That, while it is the duty of the whole Church to make disciples of all nations, yet, in the discharge of this duty, independent Churches of the Anglican Communion ought to recognise the equal rights of each other when establishing foreign missionary jurisdictions, so that two bishops of that Communion may not exercise jurisdiction in the same place, and the Conference recommends every bishop to use his influence in the diocesan and provincial synods of his particular Church to gain the adhesion of the synods to these principles, with a view to the framing of canons or resolutions in accord therewith. Where such rights have, through inadvertence, been infringed in the past, an adjustment of the respective positions of the bishops concerned ought to be made by an amicable arrangement between them, with a view to correcting as far as possible the evils arising from such infringement.’[24]

5. The Pan Anglican Congress of 1908

In 1908 a Pan Anglican Congress was held in London in advance of the Lambeth Conference which was held in the same year. This was a voluntary gathering of clergy and laity from all over the Communion which was described by George Bell as:

‘…an unofficial assembly intended to stir the imagination of the Anglican Communion and to give the rank and file a new sense of unity, besides leading to fresh offers of service by clergy at home to the Church Overseas.’

A series of papers on a range of topics was produced for the Congress and the sixth of these was a paper on the nature of the Anglican Communion by the Bishop of Gibraltar, William Collins. In this paper Collins argues that particular groups of churches ‘have a message for one another and for the whole world’ and what the Anglican Communion stands for is ‘free growth in every part, and free choice in every sphere, where growth and choice alike are not already determined by fundamental facts.’[25]

He then goes on to explain what this means in relation to the Anglican attitude to the past, the present and the future, declaring that:

‘As regards the past it is the Church of the new learning, making its appeal to the ancient principles, but to those principles as tested and determined by impartial scholarship. As regards the present, it is the Church of reasoned liberty, submitting to all new facts, but coordinating them with its existing knowledge and so making them its own. As regards the future, it is the Church of the larger outlook, which can contemplate the most marvellous developments of the faith amongst new peoples without the necessity for a re-adjustment of its whole spiritual equation. It is the one great ecclesiastical force which yields to facts and rules by yielding; tenacious of the past, yet capable in an unlimited degree of adapting itself to new conditions.’[26]

6. The Lambeth Conference of 1908

Adaption of the Prayer Book

The Lambeth Conference of 1908 returned to the question of the adaptation of the Book of Common Prayer which had been considered in previous Conferences. The outcome of its deliberations was Resolutions 24 and 27.

The former lays down the principle that:

‘While the educative value of the Book of Common Prayer and the importance of retaining it as a bond of union and standard of devotion should be fully recognised, every effort should be made, under due authority, to render the forms of public worship more intelligible to uneducated congregations and better suited to the widely diverse needs of the various races within the Anglican Communion.’[27]

The latter then goes on to look at specifics, declaring that:

‘In any revision of the Book of Common Prayer which may hereafter be undertaken by competent authority the following principles should be held in view:

a.) the adaptation of rubrics in a large number of cases to present customs as generally accepted;

b.) the omission of parts of the services to obviate repetition or redundancy;

c.) the framing of additions to the present services in the way of enrichment;

d.) the fuller provision of alternatives in our forms of public worship;

e.) the provision for greater elasticity in public worship;

f.) the change of words obscure or commonly misunderstood;

g.) the revision of the Calendar and Tables prefixed to the Book of Common


The Anglican commitment to unity

The Conference also reiterated the Anglican commitment to Christian Unity. Resolution 58 of the Conference:

‘…reaffirms the Resolution of the Conference of 1897 that “every opportunity should be taken to emphasise the divine purpose of visible unity amongst Christians as a fact of revelation.” It desires further to affirm that in all partial projects of reunion and intercommunion the final attainment of the divine purpose should be kept in view as our object; and that care should be taken to do what will advance the reunion of the whole of Christendom, and to abstain from doing anything that will retard or prevent it.’ [29]

7. The Lambeth Conference of 1920

The unity of the Church

The focus of the Lambeth Conference of 1920 was on the unity of the Church. As the encyclical letter from the Conference explains, this was because the bishops at the Conference had come to see that:

‘…in order to accomplish its object the Church itself must be a pattern of fellowship. It is only by showing the value and power of fellowship in itself that it can win the world to fellowship. The weakness of the Church in the world to-day is not surprising when we consider how the bands of its own fellowship are loosened and broken.’[30]  

The encyclical further explains that the importance of unity had been underlined by the First World War:

‘…the war and its horrors, waged as it was between so-called Christian nations, drove home the truth with the shock of a sudden awakening. Men in all Communions began to think of the reunion of Christendom not as a laudable ambition or a beautiful dream, but as an imperative necessity.’ [31]

In order to respond to this imperative necessity, the Conference passed Resolution 9, the well known ‘Appeal to All Christian People.’ As the encyclical notes, the purpose of this Appeal is to urge churches:

‘…to try a new approach to reunion; to adopt a new point of view; to look up to the reality as it is in God.  The unity which we seek exists.  It is in God, Who is the perfection of unity, the one Father, the one Lord, the one Spirit, Who gives life to the one Body.  Again, the one Body exists.  It needs not to be made, nor to be remade, but to become organic and visible.  Once more, the fellowship of the members of the one Body exists.  It is the work of God, not of  man. We have only to discover it, and to set free its activities.’[32]

The encyclical goes on to say that in the light of this need for a fresh approach to reunion the Appeal offers a path towards unity that does not involve churches seeking to impose their distinctive forms of ecclesiology on other churches, but instead involves holding diversity within the framework of common faith, common sacraments and a common ministry ministry. This is, it says: 

‘… is in idea and in method a new appeal.  If it be prospered, it will change the spirit and direction of our efforts.  Terms of reunion must no longer be judged by the success with which they meet the claims and present positions of two or more uniting Communions, but by their correspondence to the common ideal of the Church is God would have it be.  Again, in the past, negotiations for reunion have often started with the attempt to define the measure of uniformity which is essential.  The impression has been given that nothing else matters.  Now we see that those element of truth about which differences have arisen are essential to the fullness of the witness of the whole Church.  We have no need to belittle what is distinctive in our own interpretation of the Christian life: we believe that it is something precious which we held in trust for the common good.  We desire that others should share in our heritage and blessings as we wish to share in theirs.  It is not by reducing the different groups of Christians to uniformity but by rightly using their diversity, that the Church can become all things to all men.  So long as there is vital connexion with the head, there is positive value in the differentiation of the members.  But we are convinced this ideal cannot be fulfilled if these groups are content to remain in separation from one another or to be joined together only in some vague federation.  Their value for the fullness of Christian life, truth, and witness can only be realised if they are united together in the fellowship of one visible society whose members are bound together by the ties of a common faith, common sacraments, and a common ministry.  It is towards this ideal of a united and truly Catholic Church that we must all set our minds.’[33]

The nature of the Anglican Communion

The encyclical also connects the search for unity between churches with the internal development of the Anglican Communion. It states that:

‘The more our minds are filled with the hopes of seeing the universal fellowship in full and free activity, the more zealous ought we to be to improve and strengthen in every way the fellowship of our own Church. This is one of the most direct and obvious methods of preparing for reunion.

It further suggests that the characteristics of the fellowship that exists within the Anglican Communion might have something to offer to the wider search for unity. In this connection it notes that:

For half a century the Lambeth Conference has more and more served to focus the experience and counsels of our Communion.  But it does not claim to exercise any powers of control or command.  It stands for the far more spiritual and more Christian principle of loyalty to the fellowship.  The Churches represented in it are indeed independent, but independent with the Christian freedom which recognizes the restraints of truth and of love. They are not free to deny the truth.  They are not free to ignore the fellowship.  And the objects of our Conferences are to attain an ever deeper apprehension of the truth, and to guard the fellowship with ever increasing appreciation of its value.’[34]

In line with what is said here about the nature of the authority of the Lambeth Conference, Resolution 44 of 1920 emphasised the advisory nature of the Central Consultative Body of the Communion:

‘In order to prevent misapprehension the Conference declares that the Consultative Body, created by the Lambeth Conference of 1897 and consolidated by the Conference of 1908, is a purely advisory body. It is of the nature of a continuation committee of the whole Conference and neither possesses nor claims any executive or administrative power. It is framed so as to represent all branches of the Anglican Communion and it offers advice only when advice is asked for.’[35]

The ministry of women

As well as considering the unity of the Church, the 1920 Lambeth Conference also gave its attention to the issue of the ministry of women in the Church, passing a series of resolutions (Resolutions 46-54) which among other things agreed that women should be admitted to all Councils of the Church open to lay people on equal terms with  men, that the order of deaconesses should be formally recognised as the Anglican order of ministry for women and that women should be permitted to lead services, lead in prayer and ‘instruct and exhort the congregation’

The encyclical letter explains the thinking behind these resolutions, noting that in the past the Church ‘has under-valued and neglected the gifts of women and has too thanklessly used their work’ and explaining that:

‘We feel bound to respect the customs of the Church, not as an iron law, but as results and records of the Spirit’s guidance. In such customs there is much which obviously was dictated by reasonable regard to contemporary social conventions. As these differ from age to age and country to country, the uses the Church makes of the services of women will also differ.  But this use will be further determined by a more important consideration.  It is the peculiar gifts and the special excellences of women which the Church will most wish to use.  Its wisdom will be shown, not in disregarding, but in taking advantage of, the differences between women and men.  These considerations seem to have guided the Primitive Church to create the Order of Deaconesses.  We have recorded our approval of the revival of that order, and we have attempted to indicate the duties and functions which in our judgement belong to it.  We also recognise that God has granted to some women special gifts of spiritual insight and powers of prophetic teaching. We have tried to show how these gifts can be exercised to the greatest benefit of the Church.  The arrangements which we have suggested are not applicable to all countries alike. Yet everywhere the attempt must be made to make room for the Spirit to work according to the wisdom which He will give, so that the fellowship to the Ministry may be strengthened by the co-operation of women and the fellowship of the Church be enriched by their spiritual gifts.’[36]

Anglican liturgical development

A final aspect of the 1920 Lambeth Conference that is worth noting is what it said about liturgical development within the Communion. The report of the Committee looking at ‘missionary problems’ notes that previous Lambeth Conferences had recognised the need for ‘the adaption and enrichment’ of the services in the Book of Common Prayer  to meet the need of ‘races and countries overseas.’ However, the demand has now arisen on the Mission Field not just for adaptation of the Prayer Book but for new entirely new ‘forms and services.’[37]

The report argues that the sort of liturgical uniformity envisaged in the Preface to the Prayer Book is now out of date, being ‘neither applicable to Dioceses or Provinces in the Mission Field, nor in itself necessary as a bond of union between Churches which have unity of faith.’[38]  It therefore recommends:

‘(i) Rigid liturgical uniformity is not to be regarded as a necessity throughout the Churches of the Anglican Communion in the Mission Field.

(ii) It should be recognized that full liberty belongs to Diocesan Bishops not only for the adaptation and addition alluded to earlier but also for the adoption of other uses.

(iii) In the exercise of this liberty care should always be taken: –

a.) To maintain a Scriptural and Catholic balance of Truth.

b.) To give due consideration to the precedents of the early Church.

c.) To observe such limitations as may be imposed by higher synodical authority.

d.) To remember with brotherly consideration the possible effect their action may have on other Provinces and Branches of the Anglican Communion.’ [39]

The report also recommends the appointment of permanent committee of liturgical experts to which Dioceses and Provinces might turn for advice.   

The committee’s recommendations were eventually reflected in Resolutions 36- 38 of the Conference. These declare:

’36. While maintaining the authority of the Book of Common Prayer as the Anglican standard of doctrine and practice, we consider that liturgical uniformity should not be regarded as a necessity throughout the Churches of the Anglican Communion. The conditions of the Church in many parts of the mission field render inapplicable the retention of that Book as the one fixed liturgical model.

37. Although the inherent right of a diocesan bishop to put forth or sanction liturgical forms is subject to such limitations as may be imposed by higher synodical authority, it is desirable that such authority should not be too rigidly exercised so long as those features are retained which are essential to the safeguarding of the unity of the Anglican Communion

38. The Conference recommends the appointment of a committee of students of liturgical questions which would be ready to advise any diocese or province on the form and matter of services proposed for adoption, and requests the Archbishop of Canterbury to take such steps as he deems best to give early effect to this Resolution.’[40]

8. The Lambeth Conference of 1930

The unity of the Church

The Lambeth Conference of 1930 gave further consideration to the issue of the unity of the Church highlighted in 1920. The committee tasked with looking at this subject endorsed the approach taken in 1920, and went on to look at specific issues which had arisen in the light of it. Among these were the issue of the importance of the historic episcopate and the issue of inter-communion.

With regard to the former, the committee’s report declares that during the history of the Church the Episcopate has been:

‘…an institution fulfilling certain purposes. As an institution it was, and is, characterised by succession in two forms, the succession in office and the succession of consecration. And it had generally recognised functions: the general superintendence of the Church and more especially of the Clergy: the maintenance of unity in the one Eucharist; the ordination of men to the ministry; the safeguarding of the faith; and the administration of the discipline of the Church. There have been different interpretations of the relation of these elements of the Historic Episcopate to one another; but these elements themselves are constant.’[41]

It follows, says the report, that when Anglicans say that they are committed to the Historic Episcopate:

‘…we are not to be understood as insisting on the office apart from the functions. What we uphold is the Episcopate, maintained in successive generations by continuity of succession and consecration, as it has been throughout the history of the Church from the earliest times, and discharging those functions which from the earliest times it has discharged.’[42]

The report states that Anglicans:

‘…readily agree that there are other elements in the full life of the Christian Church, and we hold that the episcopate should be ‘constitutional’ in the sense that provision should be made for the due co-operation of the presbyterate and the congregation of Christ’s faithful people in the ordering of the Church’s life. Indeed, this is already secured in varying degrees in all parts of the Communion by the revival of Diocesan and Provincial Synods, or by other similar means.  We recognise that in this respect we have much to learn and to gain from the traditions and customs of the non-episcopal churches.’[43]

However, it says that the special responsibility of Anglicans ‘is to bring into the complete life of the united Church those elements which we have received and hold in trust.  Chief among these, the matter of Order, is the Historic Episcopate.’[44]

With regard to inter-communion, the report argues that:

‘The will and intention of Christians to perpetuate separately organised churches makes it inconsistent in principle for them to come before our Lord to be united as one body by the sacrament of His own Body and Blood. The general rule of our Church must therefore be held to exclude indiscriminate Inter-communion, or any such Inter-Communion as expresses acquiescence in the continuance of separately organised Churches.’[45]

According to the report, this is why Anglicans:

‘…hold as a general principle that Inter-communion should be the goal of, rather than a means to, the restoration of union, and also why the general rule of the Church has been, as set forth by the last Lambeth Conference, that members of Anglican Churches should receive the Holy Communion only from ministers of their own Church or of Churches in full communion with it.’[46]

The report notes, however, that this is rule of Church discipline and as such ‘is subject to exception where the purpose of that discipline can thus be better served.’ It holds that this rule falls under the dispensing power of the bishops who should be free to grant exceptions in accordance with any relevant national, regional or provincial principles on the matter. [47]  

The nature of the Anglican Communion

As well as considering the issue of Christian unity the Conference of 1930 also spent time considering the nature Anglican Communion. The report of the committee that looked at this issue argues that there are ‘two prevailing types of ecclesiastical organisation.’ In one type there is ‘centralised government.’ The Roman Catholic Church is the great example of this type. In the other type there is ‘regional autonomy within one fellowship.’ This was the type of organisation that existed in the Church of the first centuries and which is upheld in the today by the Orthodox churches and by the Anglican Communion.[48]

As an organisation of the latter type the Anglican Communion is a fellowship of self-governing local churches, historically linked to the British isles, ‘whose faith has been grounded in the doctrines and ideals for which the Church of England has always stood.’[49]

The report describes these doctrines and ideals as follows:

‘What are these doctrines?  We hold the Catholic faith in its entirety: that is to say, the truth of Christ, contained in Holy Scripture; stated in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds; expressed in the Sacraments of the Gospel and the rites of the Primitive Church as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer with its various local adaptations; and safeguarded by the historic threefold Order of the Ministry.

What are these ideals?  They are the ideals of the Church of Christ.  Prominent among them are an open Bible, a pastoral Priesthood, a common worship, a standard of conduct consistent with that worship, and a fearless love of truth.  Without comparing ourselves with others, we acknowledge thankfully as the fruits of these ideals within our Communion, the sanctity of mystics, the learning of scholars, the courage of missionaries, the uprightness of civil administrators, and the devotion of many servants of God in Church and State.’[50]

The report goes on to add that ‘while, however, we hold the Catholic Faith, we hold it in freedom.’ What this means is that:

‘Every church our Communion is free to build up its life and development upon the provisions of its own constitution.  Local churches (that quote the words of Bishop Creighton) ‘have no power to change the Creeds of the universal Church or its early organisation.  But they have the right to determine the best methods of setting forth to their people the contents of the Christian faith. They may regulate rites, ceremonies, usages, observances and discipline for that purpose, according to their own wisdom and experience and the needs of the people.’[51]

The report acknowledges that such freedom carries with it

‘….the risk of divergence to the point even of disruption.  In case any such risk should actually arise it is clear that the Lambeth Conference as such could not take any disciplinary action. Formal action would belong to the several churches of the Communion individually; but the advice of the Lambeth Conference, sought before executive action is taken by the constituent churches, would carry very great moral weight. And we believe in the Holy Spirit.  We trust in His power working in every part of His Church as the effective bond to hold us together.’[52]

According to the report:

‘The freedom of each separate church thus resembles, both in its scope and in its limitations, the freedom of a member of a living organism.  It performs its distinctive functions under the direction of the Head, and for the benefit of the whole body. If it functions in separation from the other members, or in imperfect correspondence to the will of Christ, is not necessarily separated from the body, but its own life is impoverished, and the whole body is weakened and distracted.‘[53]

As part of its emphasis on the freedom existing within the Communion, the report notes that this means that the Central Consultative Body of the Communion:

‘ …should be recognised as possessing no authority beyond that possessed by the [Lambeth] Conference itself. We call attention to the statement of the Lambeth Conference of 1908, reaffirmed in 1920, that the Consultative Body is purely advisory. It has no legal function as an Appellate Tribunal, and we do not recommend any central Appellate Tribunal should be appointed.  Such centralised authority would, we believe, be contrary to the spirit of the Anglican Communion. We contemplate that Appellate Tribunals will be constituted locally.  The authority of the Consultative body is moral.’ [54]

The report of the committee on the Anglican Communion was eventually affirmed by the Conference as a whole in Resolutions 48 and 49:

’48. The Conference affirms that the true constitution of the Catholic Church involves the principle of the autonomy of particular Churches based upon a common faith and order, and commends to the faithful those sections of the Report of Committee IV which deal with the ideal and future of the Anglican Communion.

49. The Conference approves the following statement of nature and status of the Anglican Communion, as that term is used in its Resolutions:

The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, which have the following characteristics in common:

a.) they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorised in their several Churches;

b.) they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and

c.) they are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference.

The Conference makes this statement praying for and eagerly awaiting the time when the Churches of the present Anglican Communion will enter into communion with other parts of the Catholic Church not definable as Anglican in the above sense, as a step towards the ultimate reunion of all Christendom in one visibly united fellowship.’[55]

[1] The Six Lambeth Conferences 1867-1920, London: SPCK 1920, pp.5-6. For the background to the

   Conference see A M G Stephenson, The First Lambeth Conference 1867, London: SPCK, 1967.

[2] The Six Lambeth Conferences, p.6.

[3]Ibid , p.53.

[4] Ibid pp.53-54

[5] Ibid p.54

[6] Ibid, p.56

[7] Ibid, pp.82-83.  Reference is made here to the Church of England as opposed to the United Church of

  England and Ireland referred to in 1867 , because the Church of Ireland had become an separate

  church following its disestablishment in 1871. 

[8] Ibid p.83

[9] Ibid, p.83

[10] Ibid, p.83

[11] Ibid, p.83.

[12] Ibis, p..83-84.

[13] Ibid, p.84.

[14] Ibid p.86-87.

[15] Ibid, p.122

[16] Ibid, p, 114.

[17] Ibid, p. 117.

[18] Ibid, p. 173.

[19] Ibid, p. 121.

[20] Ibid, pp.199-200.

[21] Ibid p. 187.

[22] Ibid, p.207.

[23] Ibid, pp.207-208.

[24] Ibid, p.203.

[25] W Collins, Pan Anglican Papers No 6 – The Anglican Communion, London: SPCK, 1908, p.10.

[26] Ibid, pp.10-11.

[27] The Six Lambeth Conferences, p.322

[28] Ibid, p.323.

[29] Ibid p.331.

[30] Ibid, p.11  – The record of the 1920 Lambeth Conference has its own numbering within the Six

   Conferences collection.

[31] Ibid p.11.

[32] Ibid p.12

[33] Ibid, p.12.

[34] Ibid pp.13-14.

[35] Ibid, p.38.

[36] Ibid, pp.14-15.

[37] Ibid, p.87

[38] Ibid p.87

[39] Ibid p.88

[40] Ibid, p. 36.

[41] Report of the Lambeth Conference of 1930, London: SPCK, 1930, p.115.

[42] Ibid, pp.15-16.

[43] Ibid, p.116

[44] Ibid, p.116.

[45] Ibid p..116-117.

[46] Ibid, p.117.

[47] Ibid, p.117.

[48] Ibid, p.153.

[49] Ibid, p.154.

[50] Ibid, p.154.

[51] Ibid, p.154, quoting Creighton, Church and Nation, p.212 and also referencing Article XXXIV.

[52] Ibid pp.154-155.

[53] Ibid, p.155.

[54] Ibid, pp.155-156.

[55] Ibid, pp.54-55.

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