To Lambeth or not to Lambeth?

By Steven Charleston

At their most recent diocesan convention, the people of Utah voted to request that the next Lambeth Conference be cancelled. In a nutshell, they expressed the opinion that no good could come from hosting Lambeth at this time. In fact, they expected that just the reverse could happen: that Lambeth would prove to be another cause for a further rift in relationships. Therefore, they asked that we just call the whole thing off.

Will this request be acknowledged? Will the powers that be take it seriously?

In the ever shifting tides of political positioning that has come to be considered normal in Anglican church politics, it is too soon to tell. But if the ground swell of dissatisfaction with the way things have been going continues to rise, it could very well be a genuine possibility. The current Archbishop of Canterbury has approval ratings close to the dismal performance evaluations of George Bush or the U.S. Congress. It is not hard to imagine that people, being justifiably suspicious of his ability to be clear, fair and effective, might decide that Utah doesn’t have such a bad idea after all.

But would cancelling Lambeth be a mistake? Should we not come to the table, perhaps most especially when we disagree? The knee jerk answer should be yes, that sounds right, but the realities of past experience should caution us to think twice before we respond. The performance of some bishops at Primates’ gatherings demonstrates that unless there is a firm hand at the tiller of Lambeth, any amount of childish posturing and manipulating is likely to reoccur. In addition, the sad sight of bishops refusing to worship with one another is hardly a global invitation to join such a fractured community. And finally, with special authority being granted and cited for pronouncements coming from non-legislative meetings like Lambeth, running the risk that some partisan “resolution” will be adopted and enshrined into dogma is a risk not worth taking.

But perhaps the most persuasive thing about the Utah suggestion is that it forces us to confront our own dysfunction. More meetings enable more silly behavior. The waffling of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the manipulation of meetings by some bishops, and the lame rhetoric of other bishops who have made a cottage industry out of doom and gloom prophecies has to be faced. For too long we have all been watching this soap opera called Anglican leadership and wondering when the adults would come back into the room to make the kids play nice.

That may not happen unless we take some serious steps. What the diocese of Utah raised is an idea for just this kind of wake up call and action. Perhaps if we call off the party, some people will sober up. It may be disconcerting to many that we have decided not to have another Lambeth right away, but after all, when did we start to worship Lambeth anyway? Even more disconcerting would be the spectacle of global religious leaders playing political gotcha over issues that most Anglicans find pointless and diverting from the mission of the gospel.

Should we stay home with the folks from Utah? I wouldn’t mind keeping them company. How about you?

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and keeper of the podcasting blog EDS’s Stepping Stones. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Bishop Charleston is widely recognized as a leading proponent for justice issues and for spiritual renewal in the church.

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