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Saturday, August 8, 1998 Published at 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK


Lambeth 1998: Unity at a price

The bishops will gather again in 2008

The Lambeth Conference, the once a decade gathering of Anglican bishops from across the world, is drawing to a close in Canterbury.

For three weeks, nearly 800 bishops, most of them accompanied by their spouses, have been living, working and praying together on the campus of the University of Kent.

And they've been arguing together, too. Alex Kirby looks at what sort of church may be emerging from Lambeth 1998:

This, the 13th Lambeth Conference, was the first to be attended by women bishops.

It was easy to forget that only 10 years ago, at Lambeth 1988, many onlookers were confidently expecting the conference to split wide open over whether women could be ordained.

It did not; they were. And even though the argument rumbles on, women are now part of the life of the church at the most senior level, however fierce the pockets of resistance to them that keep on fighting.

[ image: Gay rights protests were held outside the conference]
Gay rights protests were held outside the conference
This year there were predictions that the conference would split apart over the question of homosexuality, and the place of gay and lesbian Christians in the Anglican church. Could same-sex unions be blessed, and could active homosexual people be ordained as priests?

The predictions, once again, failed to come true. The conference remained united. But it was unity bought at a price.

The vote against any relaxation of the church's teaching on homosexuality was carried by a massive majority. It did leave some bruised and battered people in its wake though.

The Bishop of Edinburgh, the leader of Scotland's Anglicans, is the Most Reverend Richard Holloway. He supports greater recognition by the church of its gay and lesbian members, though he is not himself a gay man.

After the debate he described himself as "gutted, shafted and depressed". Bishop Holloway said a speech in the debate by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, had been "pathetic".

Bishop John Spong, an American Anglican, came from the hall to tell members of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement that today's minority would inevitably become tomorrow's majority, and said he expected there to be gay bishops at the next Lambeth Conference, due in 2008.

What worried Spong, Holloway and other liberals was not just the result of the debate, but the way in which the traditionalists relied on quoting from the Bible to make their case.

In Spong's words, "the resolution sought to justify its prejudice by appeals to the authority of Holy Scripture.

"That tactic was employed in the church's attempt to justify slavery, segregation and apartheid."

Holloway said what was heartbreaking was "not so much the same-sex angle, it is the sense of a new prevailing attitude to scriptural interpretation which I do not recognise as Anglican".

He sees the Anglican church heading down the dangerous path of fundamentalism - and fundamentalism he believes is "attractive in the same way that fascism was attractive".

Holloway and Spong are not isolated voices among the bishops, but they are still a fairly small minority.

You do not have to agree with their views on sexual morality, though, to realise that they may have a point in what they say about their opponents' use of the Bible.

Modern Western theologians, with a century-and-a-half of rigorous biblical analysis behind them, will now say that you simply cannot transfer the message of a series of books written several thousand years ago to our own day without allowing for the yawning social and cultural gulf which separates us from the writers.

But those 150 years of biblical scholarship remain, literally, a closed book to many of the leaders of the vibrant young churches of the third world - the very leaders who secured the massive majority for the resolution against homosexuality.

The Most Reverend David Crawley, the Archbishop of British Columbia and Yukon, believes there are now two separate churches within the worldwide Anglican church: those who value the Bible but want to interpret it for our own day, and those who want to use it literally - the new Christian fundamentalists.

George Carey said as the Lambeth Conference drew towards its end that he was encouraged by it, and thought the Anglican church was significantly stronger.

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