An Interview with Benjamin M. Guyer

At the very end of 2017 a new volume on the Lambeth Conference was published. Paul Avis and I edited The Lambeth Conference: Theology, History, Polity and Purpose — The First 150 Years, and the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote the foreword. The book is making the rounds rather rapidly, and early reviews have been positive. I want to explain why I initiated this project and why the Lambeth Conference is important and valuable to international Anglicanism.

Given difficulties with the Lambeth Conference in 2008, why do a book on the Lambeth Conference now?

The timing was intentional. The first Lambeth Conference met in 1867, making 2017 its 150th anniversary.

When I first contacted Paul Avis about this project, it was 2013. In that initial email, I wrote,


Amazingly, 2017 — just four years from now — is the 150th anniversary of the first Lambeth Conference. Given this, as well as the low state of Anglican cohesion and goodwill at present, I would like to push for a renewed recognition of the Lambeth Conference by publishing a celebratory volume for its 150th anniversary.

So, one of the main goals was and is the edification of the wider Anglican world.

It now seems that the timing for the publication was spot-on. The Anglican Communion News Service has begun running regular features on the next Lambeth Conference (in 2020); on Twitter, those are linked with the hashtags #LC2020 and #LambethConference2020. I’ve been very glad to see this.

How did this project originate?

I had completed editorial work the previous year on Pro Communione: Theological Essays on the Anglican Covenant (Wipf & Stock, 2012). In late 2012 and early 2013, I began envisioning a trilogy of edited volumes on contemporary Anglican ecclesiology. The second volume would look at intra-Anglican relations between the Anglican Communion and what I call the “Anglican diaspora,” which is primarily found in North America but hugely influential at a global level. I intended the third volume to be on the Lambeth Conference.

But plans changed. I began working on my dissertation in summer 2013. It occurred to me that I had best get a jumpstart on planning the Lambeth Conference volume. Pro Communione took a solid two years of planning before publication and I knew this would take longer.

How did you come into contact with Paul Avis?

Working on Pro Communione showed me my limitations. I’m not a theologian. This is a great strength in some ways (modern theologians deserve many criticisms), but it is also a drawback. I don’t have as much familiarity with some topics as I would like. I knew I needed a co-editor with a background in theology.

I contacted Paul because he wrote a very gracious and supportive review of Pro Communione in the Church Times. I had read several of his books; I knew that he was an excellent scholar and that he was orthodox. In early June 2013 I sent him an email asking if he would co-edit the book with me.

How did he respond to your email?

He was on holiday. It took about a month for us to really communicate on point. But he was interested and had many good ideas from the beginning — much more mature ideas than mine, both in terms of the volume’s scope and in terms of publication strategy.

The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote the foreword. How did that happen?

Paul and I discussed that very early on. When I do things, I like to do them big.

What did you set out to accomplish with the book? Did you meet those goals?

It’s funny how goals change as projects develop. I had written to Paul:

On the one hand, and like Pro Communione, I intend that (a) the volume would explicitly aim to revive Anglican theology by working consciously with normative Anglican sources (which I take to include pre-Reformation figures, e.g., Aquinas, Augustine, etc.); (b) the volume would incorporate essays by a number of younger Anglicans; and (c) the volume would incorporate ecumenical responses by non-Anglicans, as well as by Anglicans outside the formal structures of the Anglican Communion (the latter of which is, I recognize, a much bigger issue in the USA than elsewhere, but it is a dialogue that I am fully committed to fostering in every way possible).

On the other hand, and unlike Pro Communione, I would like the volume to (d) include essays by figures who are more well established (such as yourself); (e) include essays by Anglicans from outside the Anglo-American world; and (f) include essays on both history and canon law, in addition to theology. I attempted to satisfy (e) for Pro Communione but very regrettably, nothing materialized from the few leads that I was given.

As for (f), in Pro Communione both my introduction and Andrew Goddard’s essay gave a fair bit of historical information, but as they were not explicitly labeled historical essays, I fear that their more descriptive aims may be ignored or missed, particularly by hostile readers. A more well-rounded approach, planned from the very beginning, is preferable.

Of these six points, we satisfied half. It successfully worked to further Anglican theology (point a), it had essays by more established figures (point d), and had essays on history and canon law (point f).

As for point b, we did have a couple of younger (under 50) contributors, but not as many as had initially agreed to contribute. Something similar is true of point c; it proved more difficult to find ecumenical contributors than we envisioned. We also had no one from the Anglican diaspora, but we do have a contributor (Mark Thompson) from GAFCON (the Global Anglican Futures Conference). It was really important to me to create space for that perspective.

Regrettably, we had no contributors from the Global South (point e). Several promised essays, but people get busy, and I think that bishops and archbishops are probably busier than most.

Is this a volume that really speaks to — and for — the world’s Anglicans?

Yes, without question. Anglicans share more in common than activists and critics, whether within or without the Communion’s ranks, want to admit. And, because this volume aimed at furthering the normative traditions of Anglican theology, Anglicans around the world will recognize these essays as coming quite faithfully from within their tradition.

You’ve mentioned the Anglican diaspora. How do you think its members might respond to this volume?

I don’t know. I would like to think that they would respond positively, but my sense is that groups within the Anglican diaspora have differing historical and theological understandings that are more centrifugal than centripetal. The same tendencies have existed within the Anglican Communion since the 19th century, but the Communion also possesses a really powerful set of counterweights in the Instruments of Communion — the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates’ Meeting.

If the Anglican diaspora had something institutionally similar, I think it would be much more coherent and much more effective as a Christian witness. However, I fully support inviting to the Lambeth Conference a delegation from the Anglican Church in North America, as well as other diasporic Anglican bodies. They would be ecumenical participants, but yes, let’s invite them as the most honored of guests. Whether feuding sides want to admit it, we will have more of a future together than apart. The demographics of the Anglican Church in North America are much like those of the Episcopal Church (USA): both bodies tilt quite heavily toward aging populations.

Backing up a bit, you said that centrifugal tendencies have existed in the Communion since the 19th century. The more common explanation is that Anglicanism has pretty much always been a church of churches.

The 19th century was an extremely disruptive time in Anglican history. The French Revolution sent shock waves throughout Europe, and in England this resulted in a real demonization of the recent past, especially the 18th century. As church parties began to form in the 19th century, they simply maintained this negative bias. For all of their differences, evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics looked upon the 18th century as a decadent era, and they used its purported decadence to justify their proposed developments.

The most important development was the invention of usable pasts that made their partisan stances appear more justified than they were. This can be seen in The Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology (LACT), an incomplete effort by the Oxford Movement that largely reprinted 17th-century theology, and in The Parker Society (PS) volumes, which reproduced Reformation-era works. LACT and PS should not be read as accurate reflections on the periods that they focused on, but each collection bequeathed to later generations a discretely Catholic (LACT) or Protestant (PS) face as the true Anglican identity. For a smaller, third group (the broad church), the ability to encompass both faces was transformed into a kind of virtue. As seminaries became yoked to church parties — another 19th-century development — they further institutionalized these identities by making them multigenerational. In many ways, the Anglican Communion still lives in that world.

My larger point is that the Anglican Communion and the Anglican diaspora are, in this sense at least, cut from the very same cloth: the thick and familiar but rough-hewn world of 19th-century Anglican mythologies. What we really need is a better historical narrative — one that treats this mythmaking as a series of moves within a larger historical narrative that is not defined by these same mythologies. That hasn’t happened yet. God willing, it will.

Given this, are you now working on a volume about intra-Anglican relations and their mythologies?

Alas, no. I don’t have any plans to do so, but I’m all for it. My main project now is revising my dissertation for publication. Theology — ecclesiology, mainly — is at most a recurrent side project of mine. But I do believe that sort of project needs to happen, and if I’m the one to initiate it or even take point, then fine. That is how Pro Communione came about, and it is how The Lambeth Conference began, too.

But a volume on intra-Anglican relations would probably be tangential to the larger issue I’m pointing at: a constellation of mythologies, rooted in 19th-century polemics and concerns, that Anglicans still use to chart their way through current difficulties and complexities. You can’t expect to have a successful journey if you’re using a bad map. The Anglican Communion is using a bad map written nearly two centuries ago. It’s time to draw a better map.

The Lambeth Conference originated in the 19th century. Where does that fit in your concern about Anglican mythologies?

The Lambeth Conference developed as a massive centripetal response to the centrifugal, partisan forces of the time. However, we have to be careful here; 19th-century mythmaking has known a really strange afterlife in the ostensibly more objective world of academic scholarship. There is an unbelievably massive level of academic literature on the Oxford Movement, as well as on Anglo-Catholicism more generally, but the size of this academic output is quite disproportionate to how 19th-century contemporaries saw events in their day.

The immediate controversy of the time was not the Oxford Movement, but Essays and Reviews, which was published in 1860. Thousands of petitions were signed against the work, making it the subject of the largest petition drive in 19th-century England. And yet there is a remarkable lack of academic interest in Essays and Reviews; in the last 50 years, only a critical edition of Essays and Reviews and two monographs about the work have been published! Peter Hinchliff also published books on two of the authors, Benjamin Jowett and Frederick Temple. But that is all.

Something similar is true of the controversy over John Colenso’s biblical scholarship; very little academic research exists on point. So too the controversy over the heterodox evangelical minister Charles Golightly has been almost wholly ignored. It too was a centrifugal force that influenced the development of what became the Lambeth Conference.  However, the Lambeth Conference was a centripetal movement primarily opposed to the heterodoxy of Essays and Reviews and John Colenso.

Has the Lambeth Conference been subjected to a mythmaking process as well?

Yes. My essay in The Lambeth Conference directly engages the myth that the Lambeth Conference was never intended to have synodical authority. To the contrary, it was intended to have precisely this. In the short term, the royal supremacy got in the way, but reports produced by the first Lambeth Conference were quite explicit that this was not the last word on the subject. It called for the Archbishop of Canterbury to assemble “future Synods” — the bishops used this very word — and to do so regularly under his presidency.

When the Lambeth Conference celebrated its centenary in 1967, the historian Alan M.G. Stephenson wrote a very influential (and, for the most part, very good) book about the first conference. I argue, however, that Stephenson misinterpreted a key piece of evidence for that gathering. Archbishop Longley, as is well known, stated that “I repudiate all idea of convening any assembly that be justly called “a Synod,” or that can enact canons or attempt to do acts which be in direct opposition to the authority of the Crown, which forbids the taking any such step.” Stephenson emphasized the first clause of this statement, which he treated it as a kind of constitutional declaration for what the Lambeth Conference would forever be.

I show that the real point of Longley’s statement was the second clause, which touched upon the Crown’s authority. That was a huge issue at the time. I show from Longley’s earlier writings and correspondence that he was committed to the royal supremacy but also supported the Lambeth Conference being a synod. Longley conceded, given legal strictures then present in England, that the conference could not be a synod. And yet he allowed it to be run much like a synod. I think he was quite subversive in this way. By the end of the first Lambeth Conference, few if any of the bishops in attendance thought they had just spent four days in a non-synod. Rather, many — including those who wrote the post-Conference reports — described it in exactly these terms.

I have great admiration for Stephenson’s work, but on this point his argument just doesn’t hold up. Archbishop Longley called the first Lambeth Conference an “unprecedented step.” Forgive me for quoting the conclusion of my essay: “The origins of a thing always remain in that thing. Steps unprecedented may still be taken.” It’s time to revise our understanding of the Lambeth Conference’s origins. It’s time to draw a better map.

Why is the Lambeth Conference important to Anglicans today?

The visible Church is a visible witness before the wider, visible world. There is no such thing as an independent congregation in the body of Christ. We are bound to one another. If we cannot show the value of this, we have no right to expect anyone to listen to us. But if the Great Commission contains any truth, we are equally bound to God before the world to testify that Yes, there is a new creation that can begin here and now. The Lambeth Conference is one instantiation of this recognition.

The Lambeth Conference, however, is a means and not an end. Something could take its place. Perhaps something will. But until that time, the Lambeth Conference is an unparalleled international gathering. Read through accounts of the first Lambeth Conference — people were so excited! We need that joy and vision in the Anglican Communion today. We are also duty-bound to cultivate and express that joy. How better to do so than face-to-face with so many Christian brothers and sisters from all around the world?

Our recent history shows that the Lambeth Conference is not something automatic. It is a choice. Choosing the Lambeth Conference forcefully declares the value of past Anglican precedent for today and tomorrow. The time has come to make that choice again, to renew and strengthen those bonds of affection.

Relationships are not automatic. They are like land. You lose land either because someone takes it or because you gave it up. When you lose land, you don’t get it back easily. However, the Lambeth Conference isn’t about defending the territory of the Anglican Communion, but about cultivating that space. There is bounty in such Christian dedication, and that bounty benefits not just Anglicans or even other Christians, but many people all over the world.

Where does GAFCON fit into this? You mentioned the importance of having that perspective.

I don’t know. I was very sorry to learn that the Anglican Communion News Service was not allowed to attend (not to mention the disputes over the reason for it). I am also concerned by GAFCON’s creation of a new synodical structure. This appears to be a deliberate alternative to the Anglican Consultative Council. So, perhaps the question should be, where does GAFCON want to fit?

Our GAFCON contributor, Mark Thompson, wrote that the Lambeth Conference can play a constructiverole in the Communion if it strives to lead. And many of those who have attended prior GAFCON meetings have also remained loyal, participating members of the wider Anglican Communion. So, I think it is fundamentally false to claim that GAFCON is somehow anti-Communion. I suspect, however, that some of its members are. Nonetheless, GAFCON is a clear indicator of the extent to which the Communion is fractured, and that needs to be taken very seriously.

I fear that the American culture wars have basically been exported to the wider Anglican Communion. As our culture wars continue to intensify, perhaps the best thing for the Anglican Communion is to figure out how to control the American wild cards (whether in the Episcopal Church or in the Anglican diaspora). Because Americans — and thus all American churches — have so much money, they have immense global influence. That influence can be used in a truly destructive manner, and feuding American groups have indeed used that influence destructively.

Perhaps the Lambeth Conference should pass resolutions for greater financial transparency from all member churches of the Communion?

In conclusion, what else do you hope the 2020 Lambeth Conference will do?

I hope that it offers a clear and coherent vision to at least the majority of the wider Anglican Communion. For the first century of its existence, the Lambeth Conference issued a pastoral encyclical at the conclusion of its meetings. I don’t know why that tradition ended, but I think we need to revive it. One goal of episcopal meetings is to articulate a common mind and to communicate that to the wider body of the faithful. Let the encyclical be read from every pulpit in the Communion. That would give us such a point of focus. It would remind us in a new and tangible way — a new and auditory way — that yes, we are in this together.

Like many others, I’m also ready for this agonized state of struggling communion to end. Anglicans across the world are working to undermine one another. Some are overt, others are covert, but so many hunger for power — their own at the expense of others. The Communion has become a cold civil war. We can’t continue like this. But we are also free — we don’t have to continue like this. We can navigate a new future.

I’m not quite sure how to bring this about, but the conference does have every right to play a proactive role in determining that future. The conference has, in times past, created new structures for the Communion, and there is no reason why it cannot do so again. I hope that the conference will look clearly to the future, and I trust that our volume The Lambeth Conference will play a constructive role in shaping the same.


About The Author

Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin. With Dr. Paul Avis, he is the editor of The Lambeth Conference: Theology, History, Polity and Purpose (Bloomsbury, 2017).

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