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Anglican Journal

Lambeth through the years — a chronology

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Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley convened the first Lambeth Conference in 1867.

Anglican Communion Office
Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley convened the first Lambeth Conference in 1867.











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In the 1920 Lambeth conference, the bishops said that the order of deaconesses “is for women the one and only order of ministry which has the stamp of apostolic approval.” This 1950 photo of a Canadian deaconess with students from Vacation Bible School, was among those displayed at a 2006 Wycliffe College exhibit that celebrated “Women Pioneering in Ministry.”

Courtesy of Margaret Stackhouse
In the 1920 Lambeth conference, the bishops said that the order of deaconesses “is for women the one and only order of ministry which has the stamp of apostolic approval.” This 1950 photo of a Canadian deaconess with students from Vacation Bible School, was among those displayed at a 2006 Wycliffe College exhibit that celebrated “Women Pioneering in Ministry.”











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Archbishop Michael Peers at the 1995 General Synod, which affirmed the presence of gays and lesbians in the church.

The 1968 conference urged Anglicans to be good stewards of the environment.











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Bishops at the 1978 Lambeth Conference

General Synod Archives
Bishops at the 1978 Lambeth Conference











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Supporters of gay and lesbian Anglicans at the 1998 Lambeth conference.

Anglican Communion Office
Supporters of gay and lesbian Anglicans at the 1998 Lambeth conference.

Compiled by Marites N. Sison
Web production by Brian Bukowski

The Lambeth Conference, the by-invitation-only gathering every 10 years of Anglican bishops from around the world, has no constitution or formal powers. “It is not a formal synod or council of the bishops of the Communion,” according to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams,  in his invitation to this year’s conference. “An invitation to participate in the conference has not in the past been a certificate of doctrinal orthodoxy. Coming to the Lambeth Conference does not commit you to accepting the position of others as necessarily a legitimate expression of Anglican doctrine and discipline, or to any action that would compromise your conscience or the integrity of your local church.”

Nevertheless, bishops have passed resolutions on religious and social issues, as reflected in this chronology. The chronology also shows that Anglicans are not always divided; bishops have, for instance, found some basis for unity on many issues such as human rights, peace and ecumenical relations.


  • First Lambeth Conference is held; bishops express hope it will be followed by “other meetings to be conducted in the same spirit of brotherly love.”


  • Conference publishes an encyclical letter that includes agreement among bishops not to intervene or exercise episcopal functions in jurisdictions other than their own.


  • Divorce (except in the case of adultery or fornication) cannot be recognized by the church, conference states; it also disallows the remarriage of “the guilty party” in a divorce for adultery “during the life of the other party”; acknowledges that with differences of opinion on the question of whether the “innocent party” can remarry, clergy should not refuse sacraments “or other privileges of the church” to them.
  • Polygamists cannot be baptized “until such time as they shall be in a position to accept the law of Christ,” but local church authorities can decide whether wives of polygamists can be baptized. (There was “considerable dissent” on the issues of both polygamy and divorce.)
  • Book of Common Prayer cannot be revised “without seriously considering the possible effect of such action on other branches of the church.”
  • Chicago Quadrilateral, as a basis for unity, is adopted. The document affirms as the essential elements of faith and order in the quest for Christian unity: the Holy Scriptures, the Nicene Creed, the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, and the historic episcopate.
  • Tackles issues such as emigration, socialism, and temperance.


  • Bishops express desire for a conference every 10 years.
  • Conference stresses importance of the church adapting to “local circumstances.”
  • Emphasizes importance of working for unity among Christians.
  • Asks Christians to pray for the cause of international arbitration.


  • Divorced persons “even if ‘innocent’” cannot remarry in church; an “innocent party” who remarries in a civil ceremony “might be re-admitted to communion.”
  • Condemns birth control and “tampering with nascent life.”
  • Discourages separate or independent churches on the basis of race or colour. 
  • States that public worship must be made “more intelligible to uneducated congregations and better suited to the widely diverse needs of various races” within the Communion. 


(Note: The 10-year interval between Lambeth conferences was interrupted by the First and Second World Wars, and led to this sequence of meetings.)

  • Admission of women “to all councils in the church in which lay men serve is recommended”; leaves it up to diocesan, provincial and national synods “when or how” to implement it.
  • Asks that the diaconate of women be recognized in the communion; states that “the order of deaconesses is for women the one and only order of ministry which has the stamp of apostolic approval, and is for women the only order of ministry which we can recommend.”
  • Affirms that marriage is “a life-long and indissoluble union … of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side,” but admits “the right of a national or regional church within our communion to deal with cases which fall within the exception mentioned in the record of our Lord’s words in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.”
  • Declines to set rules on birth control but issues “an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception.”
  • Records its protest against “colour prejudice” among races.
  • Maintains authority of the Book of Common Prayer as the Anglican standard of doctrine and practice, but states, “liturgical uniformity should not be regarded as a necessity” throughout the communion.
  • Asks clergy and members of the church to join physicians and public authorities in meeting the “scourge” of venereal diseases and in helping victims.
  • Expresses support for the League of Nations.


  • First attempts at defining the Anglican Communion.
    “While passing no judgment on the practice of regional or national churches within our communion,” recommends that the remarriage of a divorced person whose former partner is still living be not celebrated according to church rites.
  • Recommends sexual abstinence but states that “in cases where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence,” other methods might be used “provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles.”
  • Records “its abhorrence of the sinful practice of abortion.”
  • Calls pre-marital sex a “grievous sin.”
  • Disapproves of exclusion from worship on account of colour or race.


  • Rules that the diocese of South China’s proposal to ordain a deaconess to the priesthood for an experimental period of 20 years would be “against the tradition and order and would gravely affect the internal and external relations of the Anglican Communion.” The conference’s opinion was sought by the Church of China’s General Synod. (Earlier, in 1944, Florence Li Tim Oi had been ordained the first female priest in the Communion by the bishop of Hong Kong; in 1946, to defuse the controversy surrounding her ordination, she surrendered her priest’s licence, but not her Holy Orders.) 
  • Conference recalls that women’s ordination was examined in England by the Archbishop’s Commission on the Ministry of Women in 1935, but nevertheless states “the time has not come for its further formal consideration.”
  • Declares that all people “are equally the objects of God’s love;” endorses the proposed Covenant on Human Rights before the U.N.
  • Urges allied nations to enter into peace treaties with Germany and Japan “based on principles of justice.”
  • Urges governments to welcome political exiles and refugees.
  • Professes “deep concern for the future of Palestine” and prays for peace between Muslims and Jews.
  • Declares Marxian communism as “contrary to the Christian faith and practice.”


  • Changes stance on divorce; conference “recognizes that divorce is granted by the secular authority in many lands on grounds which the church cannot acknowledge, and recognizes also that in certain cases where a decree of divorce has been sought and may even have been granted, there may in fact have been no marital bond in the eyes of the church.”
  • Changes stance on family planning stating that it is “a right and important factor in Christian family life” and that “methods mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience” were acceptable.
  • Acknowledges that introducing monogamy into societies that practice polygamy “involves a social and economic revolution and raises problems which the Christian church has as yet not solved.”
  • Warns against gambling, drunkenness, and use of drugs.
  • Calls attention to the plight of refugees and stateless persons.


  • Some bishops continue to push for the ordination of women but conference affirms that “the theological arguments” for and against it are “inconclusive.” Asks provinces to study the question and report its findings to the Anglican Consultative Council.
  • Recommends that “before any national or regional church or province makes a final decision to ordain women to the priesthood, the advice of the Anglican Consultative Council (or Lambeth consultative body) be sought and carefully considered.”
  • Recognizes that polygamy “poses one of the sharpest conflicts between the faith and particular cultures.”
  • Adopts recommendation to set up jointly with the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC).
  • Disagrees with Pope Paul VI’s conclusion that all methods of birth control other than abstinence from sexual intercourse or the so-called rhythm method are contrary to the “order established by God.”
  • Affirms the words of the 1930 Conference that “war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ”; condemns use of nuclear and bacteriological weapons; upholds the right of conscientious objection.
  • Expresses “responsible stewardship over nature.”
  • Views with concern continuing tensions in the Middle East.
  • Invites theological and ecumenical guests to join the conference.
  • Invites media to cover the conference for the first time.


  • Reaffirms heterosexuality as the scriptural norm but recognizes “the need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research;” expresses pastoral concern for homosexuals and encourages dialogue with them.
  • Makes progress on ordination of women to the priesthood. Conference declares its acceptance of member churches which now ordain women and urges that they “respect the convictions of those provinces and dioceses which do not;” urges those which do not ordain women to do the same. (Notes that since the last meeting, the diocese of Hong Kong, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church in the United States, and the Church of the Province of New Zealand have admitted women to the presbyterate and that eight other member churches of the communion have either agreed or approved in principle or stated that they have no “fundamental or theological objections” to the ordination of women.)
  • Recognizes the autonomy of its member churches and acknowledges the “legal right” of each church to make its own decisions about admitting women to Holy Orders; states such action would have consequences for the communion but nonetheless encourages members “to continue in communion with one another.” Acknowledges that both the debate about the ordination of women and the ordinations themselves have “caused distress and pain to many on both sides.”
  • Recognizes that some member churches wish to consecrate women to the episcopate but recommends that no decision be taken “without consultation with the episcopate through the primates and overwhelming support in any member church and in the diocese concerned.”
  • Some assistant bishops are invited to the conference for the first time.
  • Advises member churches “not to take action regarding issues which are of concern to the whole Anglican Communion without consultation with a Lambeth Conference or with the episcopate through the Primate’s Committee.”
  • Primates are asked to initiate a study on the nature of authority within the communion.
  • Commends the “Partners in Mission” process to member churches.
  • Emphasizes strengthening of relations with Lutheran church.


  • Accepts the ordination of women as bishops. Conference asks provinces to respect the decision of provinces that have approved the ordination of women to the episcopate, without such action indicating acceptance, and to maintain “the highest possible degree of communion with the provinces which differ;” asks the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a commission to examine its implications for the Communion. (Note: A year later, in 1989, the first woman bishop in the Communion, Barbara Harris, is consecrated as suffragan bishop in the diocese of Massachusetts.)
  • Bishops are asked to continue dialogue and make pastoral provision for clergy and congregations whose opinions differ from theirs; recognizes “serious hurt” resulting either from ordination of women or the questioning of the validity of the episcopal acts of a woman bishop.
  • Reaffirms respect for diocesan boundaries; affirms that it is “inappropriate behaviour” for any bishop or priest to exercise episcopal or pastoral ministry in another diocese without prior permission and invitation of the bishop there.
  • The new Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission is asked to explore “the meaning and nature of communion.”
  • Reaffirms “its unity in the historical position of respect for diocesan boundaries.”
  • Urges that “encouragement be given to a developing collegial role for the Primates’ Meeting” so that it is able to “exercise an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters.”
  • Upholds monogamy “as God’s plan” but recommends that polygamists can now be baptized and confirmed with believing wives and children provided they promise not to marry again as along as any of their wives are alive and if the local community is agreeable.
  • Asks Christian leaders “to be explicit about the sinfulness of violence and sexual abuse whether of children or adults.”
  • Recognizes AIDS as a “catastrophic threat” and asks bishops to take the lead in promoting programmes “concerned with the cause and prevention of the disease.”
  • Endorses the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
  • Inter-faith dialogue is commended.
  • Expresses concern for the emergence of “Islamic religious fundamentalism.”
  • Reaffirms need for “deep and dispassionate study” of homosexuality; calls on provinces to reassess its “care for and attitude” towards gays and lesbians.


  • Eleven women bishops attend the conference for the first time.
  • Passes resolution “rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and rejecting the “legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions,” with 526 bishops voting in favour, 70 against, and 45 abstentions. This was passed despite the conclusion of the subsection on human sexuality that bishops were unable to reach a common mind on the matter.
  • About 150 bishops issue a pastoral statement to gay and lesbian Anglicans pledging to work for their full inclusion in the life of the church.
  • First Spouses’ Conference is held. (Wives’ conference held in 1978 and 1988.)
  • All serving bishops, including assistants and suffragans, are invited for the first time.
  • Conference is at its most diverse, reflecting the dramatic demographic shift in the Communion.
  • Calls upon all provinces to uphold principle of “Open Reception” as it relates to the ordination of women to the priesthood.
  • Reaffirms historical respect for episcopal and diocesan boundaries.

Sources: Lambeth Resolutions Database of the Anglican Church of Canada, (www.anglican.ca/library/ lambeth-search); Historical Dictionary of Anglicanism, by Colin Buchanan; Resolutions of the Lambeth Conference, 1867-1988, edited by Roger Coleman; Unity and Diversity in the Lambeth Conference, essay by Christopher Webber.

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