2020 was scheduled to be the year of the 15th Lambeth Conference, the assembly of bishops from across the Anglican Communion which has been convened by Archbishops of Canterbury roughly every ten years since 1867. This blog reflects on how the conference began.
There had been earlier suggestions that such a gathering might be worthwhile, but momentum increased in the 1860s in the context of the conflict between High Church bishops in South Africa, headed by Robert Gray (the first Anglican Bishop of Cape Town) and John Colenso, Bishop of Natal. Colenso’s liberal biblical interpretations and theology led Gray to announce Colenso’s removal from office in December 1863. However Colenso, who had refused to attend the tribunal at which his position had been considered, successfully appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, which ruled that Gray had acted beyond his authority.
This generated concern elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, and in 1865 the Anglican Church in Canada wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley, asking him to convene a meeting of bishops to discuss this and other matters. After a committee of Convocation, the ruling body for the province of Canterbury, had considered the request, in February 1867 Longley wrote to 144 bishops from across the world inviting them to convene at Lambeth Palace for four days in September.
There was widespread scepticism about the need for the conference, and only around half of those invited came. Some declined to take part out of support of Colenso. Archibald Tait, Bishop of London, who was to succeed Longley at Canterbury in 1868 and preside over the second Lambeth Conference, is believed to have attended only on condition that the Colenso affair would not be discussed. In the end, it was to dominate the bishops’ discussions.
However there was no resolution or formal declaration in relation to the events in Southern Africa. Given the level of attendance, the ‘Pan-Anglican Synod’ as it was termed was widely perceived to have been a failure. But it had demonstrated that staging such an event was not impossible, and important connections had been made.
Although there was no certainty at the time that the occasion would be repeated, subsequent requests to Archbishop Tait from the Canadian church again in 1872, and American bishops in 1874, led to Tait agreeing to stage a second conference in 1878. The 1878 conference was significantly longer, attendance was greater, and much had been learned from 1867. The conference ended with an indication that a third conference should be held in 1888, and the rough pattern had been set.