Guarding and proclaiming the unchanging truth in a changing world

CROSSING THE RUBICON: Lambeth Resolution I.10, the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion.

Earlier this year I was speaking with an English friend concerned about the direction of the Church of England. “Where do we draw the line?” he asked. “That’s easy,” I replied: “It’s called Lambeth Resolution I.10.”

The 1998 Resolution I.10 on Human Sexuality has been and remains the Rubicon for the Anglican Communion. Those who step over that line will have divorced themselves from biblical Christianity, from historic Anglicanism, and from the vast majority of Anglicans worldwide. Several provinces of the Communion have already taken that step. It appears that the Mother Church is about to follow.

I was present at the 1998 Lambeth Conference where the Resolution was passed, and I published an analysis of its text and significance. It was approved overwhelmingly by the bishops of the Communion, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, but was rejected immediately thereafter by the majority of bishops in the Episcopal Church USA. The rejection led to nearly two decades of strife within the Communion which continues to this day. Throughout his tenure Archbishop Rowan Williams upheld Lambeth I.10, however tentatively. It was also affirmed in the Windsor Report. The current Archbishop of Canterbury, to my knowledge, has not done so, which may explain the most recent statement from the Archbishops’ Council.

The letter of Mr. William Nye published on 22 November seems to be preparing the ground for retreat by attacking the recent GAFCON UK briefing paper and arguing that Lambeth Resolution I.10 is not authoritative or legally binding on the Church of England. Mr. Nye is Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council and so must be taken as articulating the view of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

Mr. Nye begins the attack by stating:

Resolution 1:10 is one of over 90 Resolutions approved by the Lambeth Conference in 1998. It expressed the will of that Conference. Like all Lambeth Conference resolutions, it is not legally binding on all provinces of the Communion, including the Church of England, though it commends an essential and persuasive view of the attitude of the Communion.

Let’s break this paragraph down into a number of points (in italics) and respond to each:

Resolution I.10 was one of many resolutions in 1998. This is true but misleading. Everyone at the Conference in 1998 knew this Resolution was centrally important and hotly contested, and many were surprised at its clarity, so much so that The Times of London called it a “surprisingly trenchant verdict.”

It expressed the will of that Conference. This verbal sleight of hand turns the Resolution into an historical relic. Indeed, all Lambeth Resolutions are now relics. There is a 130-year history of Lambeth Resolutions, speaking to matters of doctrine, of church order, and of relevant social issues, including those pertaining to marriage and family life. These Resolutions, read together, form a fairly harmonious tradition. Resolution I.10 fits clearly within this tradition. The tradition came to an end after 1998 as the 2008 Lambeth Conference replaced resolutions, which they said had become too controversial, with Indaba (table talk).

Resolution I.10 is not legally binding but commends an essential and persuasive view of an attitude of the Communion. Mr. Nye is factually correct: Lambeth Resolutions have no legal or canonical force but only the force of persuasion. This arrangement was baked into the Anglican cake from the first Conference in 1867, as noted by Professor Owen Chadwick, who states in his introduction to the collected Resolutions:

If the [Lambeth] meeting was to be acceptable to some of its more moderate opponents, it seemed to be necessary to say that the meeting was only of a discussion group, and none of its decisions would have any authority. Archbishop Longley of Canterbury would only summon the meeting, and several bishops would only attend it, if its resolutions were declared beforehand to have no binding force. Some of the American bishops who were determined to take no orders out of England were equally strong that this meeting was ‘only’ for consultation.

And indeed 130 years later, the American bishops took home the same attitude and renounced Resolution I.10 and proceeded to ordain a practicing homosexual as bishop in 2003.

Is there a difference between an authoritative teaching and a “persuasive view of an attitude”? Put another way: is there anything that Anglicans hold so dear that some of its members might break fellowship with others over it? Mr. Nye turns to this question in the next two paragraphs:

Resolution 1:10 sets out teaching on marriage, as being between a man and a woman, and teaching on abstinence outside marriage. It sets out teaching on homosexual practice. It commits the Conference to listening to the experience of homosexual persons, assures them they are loved by God, and condemns irrational fear of homosexuals. It says nothing about discipline within provinces of the Anglican Communion; the Lambeth Conference has no jurisdiction to do so.

The Resolution is an important document in the history of the Anglican Communion.  It is not the only important resolution, from that Conference or others. It does not have the force of Scripture, nor is it part of the deposit of faith. The key elements for the Communion are those within the Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral.

Once again, we’ll take his argument (in italics) point by point.

Lambeth I.10 sets out “teaching” about heterosexual, monogamous marriage, abstinence, and about homosexual practice. Curiously, he does not let on that this teaching affirms the alternatives of marriage and abstinence but cannot advise homosexual practice.

Lambeth I.10 also speaks of pastoral care and moral guidance for “those who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation [“homosexual persons” - Mr. Nye].” This portion of the Resolution has a normative pastoral force, but it is set in a theological framework that “homosexual practice [i]s incompatible with Scripture.” Taken as a whole, the Resolution calls the church, both in England and throughout the Communion, to minister to all those who experience sexual and marital brokenness and violence. It does not, however, provide a foundation for approving same-sex civil partnerships or same-sex marriage.

Lambeth I.10 does not have the force of Scripture… This statement contradicts the bishops’ claim to speak “in view of the teaching of Scripture” and to teach that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Scripture.” Bishops at the time were so adamant on this point that they insisted on referencing other resolutions (IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23 and V.35) on the authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality.

…nor is it part of the deposit of faith. By the “deposit of faith,” I presume Mr. Nye means the Creeds. The Creeds themselves appealed to Scripture and were never intended to cover every area of Christian orthodoxy, especially what Article VII calls the “Commandments which are called Moral.” Neither the church Fathers nor the Reformers were challenged by the modern issues of human sexuality, which is why the Lambeth bishops felt called to address it.

The key elements for the Communion are those within the Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral. The Lambeth Quadrilateral is an important set of four guidelines defining the church in terms of Scripture, Creeds, sacraments and the historic episcopate. However, there is no basis to elevate it over Lambeth Resolutions, as it was itself a Resolution of the 1888 Conference. Furthermore, in its first article the Quadrilateral refers to the “the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments … as the rule and ultimate standard of faith,” which is the very standard to which Lambeth I.10 appeals.

It says nothing about discipline within provinces of the Anglican Communion; the Lambeth Conference has no jurisdiction to do so. Before going further, we need to step aside and define discipline. The Reformers saw discipline as an essential mark of the church:

The true church is an universal congregation or fellowship of God’s faithful and elect people, built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the head corner-stone. And it hath always three notes or marks: Pure and sound doctrine; The sacraments ministered according to Christ’s holy institution; And the right use of ecclesiastical discipline. (Homily for Whitsunday)

One most often thinks of discipline in terms of Prayer Book rubrics, canon laws, and other church regulations within a particular diocese or province. In the last resort, discipline can lead to exclusion or excommunication of a person from the church.

Churches also exercise corporate discipline and excommunication, as is the case among Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. The Reformers did not address the question of inner-Anglican discipline because in their day the Church of England had no colonies, not to mention provinces with separate constitutions and canons. Centuries later the 1930 Lambeth Committee on the Anglican Communion took up the question of a possible breach of intra-communion discipline among autonomous churches:

This freedom naturally and necessarily 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 Anglican Communion individually; but the advice of the Lambeth Conference, sought before 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 to hold us together.

This precise risk of divergence arose after Lambeth 1998 when the Episcopal Church consecrated Gene Robinson in 2003 as Bishop of New Hampshire. The churches did meet in a series of Primates’ meetings and made clear the incompatibility of Robinson’s consecration with Lambeth Resolution I.10; however, the failure of the Archbishop of Canterbury to carry out the disciplinary measures of the Primates led ultimately to the formation of the GAFCON movement, which has made Lambeth I.10 a touchstone of identity.

Mr. Nye’s position about the absence of formal discipline is legally correct but spiritually dangerous in that it appears to be clearing the way for the Church of England to work around Lambeth Resolution I.10. Mr. Nye goes on to cite a number of other actions and documents of the Church of England, which I leave to my English colleagues to handle. It certainly seems as if the end-point of these actions and the so-called “Listening Process” is the approval and blessing of same-sex civil partnerships. If this indeed is where the Church of England is heading, it is, in my opinion, crossing the Rubicon, or if I may adapt a North American metaphor, barreling over Niagara Falls.

I say this for three reasons. First, blessing homosexual practice in any form is contrary to Scripture and the Christian church’s continuous moral tradition, as expressed in Lambeth Resolution I.10. Secondly, the Church of England will be unable to hold the line at same-sex civil partnerships. The Episcopal Church USA and Anglican Church of Canada are bellwethers in this regard; both having begun with same-sex partnerships have moved on to mandate same-sex marriage. The UK Government will push this process along, as is seen in the number of legal same-sex marriages of clergy in the Church of England, as pointed out in the GAFCON briefing paper.

Thirdly, approval of same-sex civil partnerships will render irreparable what the Windsor Report called the tear in the fabric of the Communion. At the recent meeting in Cairo, delegates representing twenty-five provinces and millions of Anglicans, restated the teaching of Lambeth I.10 in a Communiqué :

In this respect, the Church cannot condone same-sex unions as a form of behaviour acceptable to God. To do so would be tampering with the foundation of our faith once for all laid down by the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2: 20-22; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11; Jude 3).

They go on to warn against the kind of false modus vivendi which they foresee coming in England:

Any pastoral provision by a church for a same-sex couple (such as a liturgy or a service to bless their sexual union) that obviates the need for repentance and a commitment to pursue a change of conduct enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, would contravene the orthodox and historic teaching of the Anglican Communion on marriage and sexuality.

In a separate statement, the Primates of these churches address the great loss that will be incurred if the Mother Church violates her own birthright.

The Church of England (COE) has a unique role in the life of the Communion, which means that decisions it makes on fundamental matters impact the Communion more deeply than those made elsewhere. This is because both of its historical role and the particular role of Archbishop of Canterbury as first among equals amongst the Primates. We are deeply concerned that there appears to be a potential move towards the acceptance of blessing of same-sex union by COE. This would have serious implications for us should it occur.

I do not know how the Global South churches could be clearer. They do not want to break communion with the Church of England, as they have done with the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada. But they fear she is going the same way as the North Americans.

Let me end on a personal note of warning. I was baptized in the Episcopal Church fifty years ago this month, as a university student – I guess that makes me a born-again Anglican. I have been ordained for forty-five years. I have lived in the United States, England, and Uganda and have been inspired by the witness of Thomas Cranmer, George Herbert, C.S. Lewis, John Stott, the Uganda martyrs and Janani Luwum among others. I am convinced that the loss of the Church of England would be an incalculable blow to her heirs around the world.

The Mother Church seems poised at the edge of the Rubicon, represented by Lambeth Resolution I.10. For the sake of our Lord and his church, do not cross over.

The Rev’d Dr. Stephen Noll is the Special Advisor on the Global Anglican Future for the Anglican Church in North America and former Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University.

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