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Lambeth Conference


Lambeth Conference

The Lambeth Conferences are decennial assemblies of bishops of the Anglican Communion convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The first such conference took place in 1867.

As the Anglican Communion is an international association of autonomous national and regional churches and not a governing body, Lambeth Conferences serve a collaborative and consultative function, expressing "the mind of the communion" on issues of the day. Resolutions which a Lambeth Conference may pass are without legal effect, but they are nonetheless influential.

These conferences form one of the communion's four "Instruments of Communion".


The idea of these meetings was first suggested in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury by Bishop John Henry Hopkins of Vermont in 1851. The possibility of such an international gathering of bishops had first emerged during the Jubilee of the Church Missionary Society in 1851 when a number of US bishops were present in London.[1] However, the initial impetus came from episcopal churches in Canada. In 1865 the synod of that province, in an urgent letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr Longley), represented the unsettlement of members of the Canadian Church caused by recent legal decisions of the Privy Council, and their alarm lest the revived action of Convocation "should leave us governed by canons different from those in force in England and Ireland, and thus cause us to drift into the status of an independent branch of the Catholic Church".[2]

They therefore requested him to call a "national synod of the bishops of the Anglican Church at home and abroad",[3] to meet under his leadership. After consulting both houses of the Convocation of Canterbury, Archbishop Longley assented, and convened all the bishops of the Anglican Communion (then 144 in number) to meet at Lambeth in 1867.

Many Anglican bishops (amongst them the Archbishop of York and most of his suffragans) felt so doubtful as to the wisdom of such an assembly that they refused to attend it, and Dean Stanley declined to allow Westminster Abbey to be used for the closing service, giving as his reasons the partial character of the assembly, uncertainty as to the effect of its measures and "the presence of prelates not belonging to our Church".[4]

Archbishop Longley said in his opening address, however, that they had no desire to assume "the functions of a general synod of all the churches in full communion with the Church of England", but merely to "discuss matters of practical interest, and pronounce what we deem expedient in resolutions which may serve as safe guides to future action".[5]

The resolutions of the Lambeth Conferences have never been regarded as synodical decrees, but their weight has increased with each conference.

Seventy-six bishops accepted the primate’s invitation to the first conference, which met at Lambeth on 24 September 1867 and sat for four days, the sessions being in private. The archbishop opened the conference with an address: deliberation followed; committees were appointed to report on special questions; resolutions were adopted, and an encyclical letter was addressed to the faithful of the Anglican Communion. Each of the subsequent conferences has been first received in Canterbury Cathedral and addressed by the archbishop from the chair of St. Augustine.

From the Second Conference, they have then met at Lambeth Palace, and after sitting for five days for deliberation upon the fixed subjects and appointment of committees, have adjourned, to meet again at the end of a fortnight and sit for five days more, to receive reports, adopt resolutions and to issue their encyclical letter.

From 1978 onwards the conference has been held on the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent allowing the bishops to live and worship together on the same site for the first time. In 1978 the bishops spouses were accommodated at the nearby St Edmund's School (an Anglican private school); this separation of spouses was not felt helpful, indeed, the wife of Archbishop Desmond Tutu was famously observed climbing in through the window of her husband's room to visit him, since the doors were locked. Since 1988 the spouses have also lived at the university.


First: 1867

The Conference began with a celebration of the Holy Communion at which The Right Reverend Henry John Whitehouse (1803-1874), Second Bishop of Illinois, preached; Wilberforce of Oxford later described the sermon as 'wordy but not devoid of a certain impressiveness'. The first session convened in the upstairs Dining Room (known as the Guard Room); the remainder of the first day was spent debating the Preface to the Address which was intended to be issued after the conference. The second day was spent on a discussion of synodical authority concluding that the faith and unity of the Anglican Communion would be best maintained by there being a synod above those of the 'several branches'. Day 3 was given over to discussing the situation in the Diocese of Natal and its controversial bishop Colenso. Longley refused to accept a condemnatory resolution proposed by Hopkins, Presiding Bishop of the Americans, but they later voted to note 'the hurt done to the whole communion by the state of the church in Natal'. Of the 13 resolutions adopted by the conference, 2 have direct reference to the Natal situation. Day 4 saw the formal signing of the Address. There had been no plan for further debate but the bishops unexpectedly returned to the subject of Colenso, delaying the end of the conference. Other resolutions have to do with the creation of new sees and missionary jurisdictions, Commendatory Letters, and a voluntary spiritual tribunal in cases of doctrine and the due subordination of synods. It was agreed that the reports of the committees would be received at a final meeting on 10 December by those bishops still in England. On the final day, the bishops attended Holy Communion at Lambeth Parish Church at which Longley presided; Fulford of Montreal, one of the instigators of the original request, preached. No one session of the conference had all the bishops attending although all signed the Address and Longley was authorised to add the names of absent bishops who later subscribed to it. Attending bishops included 18 English, 5 Irish, 6 Scots, 19 American and 24 'Colonial'. The Latin and Greek texts of the Encyclical – as it rapidly became known – were produced by Wordsworth of Lincoln.

Second: 1878

Tait was a friend of Colenso and shared Dean Stanley's Erastian views (that the conference should not have been called without some royal authority) but when the Canadians again requested a Conference in 1872, he concurred. The American bishops suggested a further conference in 1874, Kerfoot of Pittsburgh delivering the request in person. Importantly, the Convocation of the Province of York had changed its position and now supported the Conference idea. 108 of the 173 bishops accepted the invitation, although the actual attendance was a little smaller. The first gathering was in Canterbury Cathedral on St. Peter's Day, 29 June. The bishops then moved Lambeth for the First Session on 2 July, after Holy Communion at which Tait presided and Thomson of York preached, the bishops gathered in the Library. One half day was assigned to each of the six main agenda areas. The reports of the special committees (based in part upon those of the committee of 1867) were embodied in the encyclical letter, which described the best mode of maintaining union, voluntary boards of arbitration, the relationship between missionary bishops and missionaries (a particular problem in India), chaplains in continental Europe, modern forms of infidelity and the best way of dealing with them and the condition, progress and needs of the churches. A final service of thanksgiving took place in St. Paul's Cathedral on 27 July. Attending bishops included 35 English, 9 Irish, 7 Scots, 19 American and 30 'Colonial and Missionary'. One Bishop Suffragan and a number of former colonial bishops with commissions in England also attended as full members. The costs of the conference were met by the English bishops and a programme of excursions was organised by J. G. Talbot, M.P. The Latin and Greek texts of the Encyclical were again produced by Wordsworth of Lincoln.

Third: 1888

The agenda of this conference was noticeable for its attention to matters beyond the internal organisation of the Anglican Communion and its attempts to engage with some of the major social issues that the member churches were encountering. In addition to the encyclical letter, nineteen resolutions were put forth, and the reports of twelve special committees are appended upon which they are based, the subjects being intemperance, purity, divorce, polygamy, observance of Sunday, socialism, care of emigrants, mutual relations of dioceses of the Anglican Communion, home reunion, Scandinavian Church, Old Catholics, etc., Eastern Churches, standards of doctrine and worship. Importantly, this was the first conference to make use of the "Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral" as a basis for Anglican self-description. The Quadrilateral laid down a fourfold basis for home reunion: that agreement should be sought concerning the Holy Scriptures, the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, the two sacraments ordained by Christ himself and the historic episcopate.

Fourth: 1897

  • Presided over by: Frederick Temple (having been convened by Archbishop Benson)
  • 194 bishops present

This conference was held a year early because of the thirteenth centennial celebrations of St. Augustine's arrival in Kent. The first event was a visit by the bishops to the Augustine monument at Ebbsfleet. A special train was run by the South Eastern Railway that stopped at Canterbury to collect the cathedral clergy and choir. A temporary platform was built at Ebbsfleet for first class passengers; second class passengers had to alight at Minster-in-Thanet and walk the remaining 2.3 miles. After an act of worship the party retrained and proceeded to Richborough to visit the Roman remains and take tea. There is no station at Richborough, perhaps a second temporary one was created. The bishops then travelled back to Canterbury to be ready for the opening service of the conference on the following day. The arrangements did not go well and the Dean of Canterbury complained of 'the appalling mismanagement by the railway authorities'.[6]

One of the chief subjects for consideration was the creation of a tribunal of reference, but the resolutions on this subject were withdrawn due to opposition of the bishops of the Episcopal Church in the USA, and a more general resolution in favour of a "consultative body" was substituted. The encyclical letter is accompanied by sixty-three resolutions (which include careful provision for provincial organisation and the extension of the title archbishop "to all metropolitans, a thankful recognition of the revival of brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and of the office of deaconess," and a desire to promote friendly relations with the Eastern Churches and the various Old Catholic bodies), and the reports of the eleven committees are subjoined.

Davidson chafed under the arrangements for the conference in which he had played no part and determined to write the final Encyclical himself. There were a number of unfortunate phrases in his draft to which many bishops objected but he refused to accept amendments on the day of its presentation. However, he reconsidered overnight and announced the following morning that he had changed the draft as requested. A bishop who rose to thank to express gratitude for his change of mind was rebuked with the words, 'Sir you may thank me all you wish, but you must thank me in silence'.[7]

Fifth: 1908

The chief subjects of discussion were: the relations of faith and modern thought, the supply and training of the clergy, education, foreign missions, revision and "enrichment" of the Book of Common Prayer, the relation of the Church to "ministries of healing" (Christian Science, etc.), the questions of marriage and divorce, organisation of the Anglican Church, and reunion with other Churches. The results of the deliberations were embodied in seventy-eight resolutions, which were appended to the encyclical issued, in the name of the conference, by the Archbishop of Canterbury on 8 August.

Sixth: 1920

  • Presided over by: Randall Davidson
  • 252 bishops present
  • Rejected Christian Science, spiritualism, and theosophy
  • Supported political lobbying against "such incentives to vice as indecent literature, suggestive plays and films, the open or secret sale of contraceptives, and the continued existence of brothels."
  • Affirmed the place of women as lay members of synods.

The single most important action of this conference was to issue the "Appeal to all Christian People", which set out the basis on which Anglican churches would move towards visible union with churches of other traditions. The document repeated a slightly modified version of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and then called on other Christians to accept it as a basis on which to discuss how they may move toward reunion. Interestingly, this proposal did not arise from the formal debates of the conference but amongst a group of bishops chatting over tea on the lawn of Lambeth Palace.

The conference's uncompromising and unqualified rejection of all forms of artificial contraception, even within marriage, was contained in Resolution 68, which said, in part:

We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers – physical, moral and religious – thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race. In opposition to the teaching which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing considerations of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists, namely the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children; the other is the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control. [8]

Seventh: 1930

  • Presided over by: Cosmo Gordon Lang
  • 308 bishops attend.[9]
  • Stressed abstinence and approved the use of birth control in limited circumstances, but did not specify contraceptives.
  • Rejected war as a means of settling international disputes.
  • Declared induced abortion "abhorrent".
  • Opposed racial segregation in churches.

Eighth: 1948

  • Presided over by: Geoffrey Fisher
  • 349 bishops attend
  • Advised that the ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi "would be against the tradition and order...of the Anglican Communion" and dismissed the need for further examination of women's ordination.
  • Welcomed full communion between the Anglican and Old Catholic churches.
  • Affirmed that "discrimination between men on the grounds of race alone is inconsistent with the principles of Christ's religion".

Ninth: 1958

  • Presided over by: Geoffrey Fisher
  • 310 bishops attend
  • Called for respect for the "consciences" of married couples who use birth control.
  • Recommended considering the renewal of the permanent diaconate.

Tenth: 1968

This was the first conference not to take place in Lambeth Palace. This was because of the increase in the number of bishops attending, as well as the presence of almost 100 observers and consultants. Meetings were instead held at Church House, Westminster although the bishops, with their spouses, were invited to dinner at Lambeth by rotation.

  • Presided over by Michael Ramsey who famously dozed off during at least one debate.
  • 462 bishops attended
  • Recommended the ordination of women to the diaconate and the recognition of previously-appointed "deaconesses" as deacons.
  • Found the arguments for and against women in the priesthood "inconclusive".
  • Suggested that assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles no longer be required of clergy.
  • Endorsed open communion.

Eleventh: 1978

This conference "recognised the autonomy of each of its member right of each Church to make its own decision" about women priests. It also denounced the use of capital punishment and called for a common lectionary.

This was the first conference to be held on the campus of the University of Kent at Canterbury where every subsequent conference has been held.

This is sometimes said to be the first conference at which some assistant bishops were invited to attend,[11] although the record shows that this is not the case.

Twelfth: 1988

The conference dealt with the question of the inter-relations of Anglican international bodies and issues such as marriage and family, human rights, poverty and debt, environment, militarism, justice and peace. The conference decided that "each province respect the decision of other provinces in the ordination or consecration of women to the episcopate."

At previous Lambeth Conferences, only bishops were invited to attend, but all members of the Anglican Consultative Council and representative bishops from the "Churches in Communion" (i.e. the Churches of Bangladesh, North and South India and Pakistan) were invited to attend.[12]

Thirteenth: 1998

  • Presided over by: George Carey
  • 749 bishops present including, for the first time, 11 women bishops

The most hotly debated issue at this conference was homosexuality in the Anglican Communion. It was finally decided, by a vote of 526–70, to pass a resolution (1.10) calling for a "listening process" but stating (in a section passed by a much smaller majority on a separate vote) that "homosexual practice" (not necessarily orientation) is "incompatible with Scripture".[13] A subsequent public apology was issued to gay and lesbian Anglicans in a "Pastoral Statement" from 182 bishops worldwide, including eight primates (those of Brazil, Canada, Central Africa, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales).[14] Division and controversy centred on this motion and its application continued to the extent that, ten years later, in 2007, Giles Goddard of Inclusive Church suggested in published correspondence with Andrew Goddard across the liberal-evangelical divide: "It's possible to construct a perfectly coherent argument that the last 10 years have been preoccupied with undoing the damage Lambeth 1.10 caused to the Communion."[15]

A controversial incident occurred during the conference when Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma of Enugu, Nigeria attempted to exorcise the "homosexual demons" from the Reverend Richard Kirker, leader of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, who was passing out leaflets. Chukwuma told Kirker that he was "killing the church"; Kirker's civil response to the attempted exorcism was "May God bless you, sir, and deliver you from your prejudice against homosexuality."[16][17][18]

Discussions about a mission to fight poverty, create jobs and transform lives by empowering the poor in developing countries using innovative savings and microcredit programs, business training and spiritual development led to the formation of Five Talents. [19]

Fourteenth: 2008

The fourteenth conference took place from 16 July to 4 August 2008 at the University of Kent's Canterbury campus. In March 2006 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, issued a pastoral letter[21] to the 38 primates of the Anglican Communion and moderators of the united churches setting out his thinking for the next Lambeth Conference.

Williams indicated that the emphasis will be on training, "for really effective, truthful and prayerful mission". He ruled out (for the time being) reopening of the controversial resolution 1.10 on human sexuality from the previous Lambeth Conference, but emphasised the "listening process" in which diverse views and experiences of human sexuality were being collected and collated in accordance with that resolution and said it "will be important to allow time for this to be presented and reflected upon in 2008".

Williams indicated that the traditional plenary sessions and resolutions would be reduced and that "We shall be looking at a bigger number of more focused groups, some of which may bring bishops and spouses together."

Attendance at the Lambeth Conference is by invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Invitations were sent to more than 880 bishops around the world for the Fourteenth Conference. Notably absent from the list of those invited are Gene Robinson and Martyn Minns. Robinson was the first Anglican bishop to exercise the office while in an acknowledged same-sex relationship. Minns, the former rector of Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, Virginia, is the head of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a splinter group of American Anglicans; the Church of Nigeria considers him a missionary bishop to the United States, despite protest from Canterbury and the U.S. Episcopal Church.

In 2008, the seven martyred members of the Melanesian Brotherhood were honoured during the concluding Eucharist of the 2008 conference at Canterbury Cathedral. Their names were added to the book of contemporary martyrs and placed, along with an icon, on the altar of the "Chapel of the Saints and Martyrs of Our Times". When the Eucharist was over, bishops and others came to pray in front of the small altar in the chapel.[22] The icon stands in the cathedral as a reminder of their witness to peace and of the multi-ethnic character of global Anglicanism.[23]


In 2008, four Anglican primates announced that they intended to boycott the Lambeth conference because of their opposition to the actions of Episcopal Church in the USA (the American branch of the Anglican church) in favour of homosexual clergy and same-sex unions.[24][25] These primates represent the Anglican provinces of Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda. In addition, Peter Jensen, Archbishop of Sydney, Australia and Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, among others announced their intentions not to attend.

The Global Anglican Future Conference, a meeting of conservative bishops held in Jerusalem in June 2008 (one month prior to Lambeth), was thought by some to be an "alternative Lambeth" for those who are opposed to the consecration of Robinson.[26] GAFCON involved Martyn Minns, Akinola and other dissenters who consider themselves to be in a state of impaired communion with Lambeth, ECUSA and Canterbury.[27] The June 2008 church blessing of Peter Cowell, an Anglican chaplain at The Royal London Hospital and priest at Westminster Abbey, and David Lord, an Anglican priest serving at a parish in Waikato, New Zealand, renewed the debate one month prior to the conference. The Reverend Martin Dudley who officiated at the ceremony at St Bartholomew-the-Great maintained that the ceremony was a "blessing" rather than a matrimonial ceremony.[28]


  • R.T. Davidson, Abp., The Lambeth Conferences of 1867, 1878 and 1888 (London, 1896)
  • Conference of Bishops of the Anglican Communion, Encyclical Letter, etc. (London, 1897 and 1908).
  • Dewi Morgan, Lambeth Speaks (London: A.R. Mowbray, 1958). N.B.: This is a sampling of authoritative texts from various Lambeth Conferences across the years.

External links

  • Lambeth Conference official website
  • Archive of Lambeth Conferences Resolutions
  • A Pan-Anglican Synod. A Sermon preached at the General Ordination held by the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Oxford, in the Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford, on Sunday, December 23, 1866, by Francis Fulford. This file contains documentation on the first Lambeth Conference.
  • Documentation on Anglicanism and contraception in connection with the Lambeth Conference
  • Conferencia de Lambeth(2008) En Español.
  • Records of the Lambeth Conference at Lambeth Palace Library

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