December 17, 2004

Baptism, Communion / Laity and Lambeth

In the discussion of baptism before communion now before us, let’s not forget that for a long time confirmation was required in order to receive communion in the Episcopal Church. How that policy changed serves to illustrate the autonomy of provinces, in contrast with the role of Lambeth as a place for discussion rather than decision.

The order of receiving sacraments was altered in England long prior to the Reformation by Archbishop Peckham, who required confirmation of those who wished to be communicants. By a process of inheritance, the various national churches of the Anglican Communion retained this limitation (with some minor alteration to provide for those “ready and desirous” of Confirmation but unable to be confirmed due to a scarcity of bishops).

The peculiar practice of confirmed communion came into question in the last century, however, as interreligious dialogue and liturgical renewal reminded Anglicans worldwide of the anomalous character of this hallowed tradition, and discussion began in earnest to remove the “confirmation bar.” The Lambeth Conference of 1948, however, felt that such a change was “not desirable” and called for the retention of the traditional (for Anglicans, anyway) order of Baptism, Confirmation, and admission to Holy Communion. (Paragraph 103, section V.B.) By 1968, the Lambeth Conference was recommending that provinces “experiment” with permitting those baptized but not confirmed to receive communion. (Resolution 25). The 1978 Conference apparently lost interest in the subject, due to the more immediate concerns raised by the emergence of the ordination of women. In the meantime, the Episcopal Church had set in motion a complete repeal of the “confirmation ban” — not as an “experiment” but as a new practice. However, in 1988 (Res. 69) the Lambeth Conference was still not of one mind, and chose to refer the issue to the ACC.

The Disappearing Laity

One of the vexed questions before us is the authority of Lambeth itself. The Lambeth Conference itself seems to forget, and then recall, from time to time, its own nature as a consultative conference, and the important role the Laity (and for that matter, the Clergy) ought to play in forming Anglican tradition and theology.

Over the last decades there has been a focus upon the Bishops (note increased number of meetings of the House of Bishops in our own church) and Primates. I understand that these domestic meetings were in part efforts to “keep the peace” by bringing bishops of divergent opinion face to face in the hopes they would find it easier to get along if they spent more time in dialogue. I think this is an excellent idea, but I fear a by-product of these meetings is the feeling among those gathered that these episcopal sessions have greater authority than either canon or tradition warrants.

This shift is illustrated in two Lambeth resolutions from ten years apart. In 1968, Lambeth stated “The Conference recommends that no major issue in the life of the Church should be decided without the full participation of the laity in discussion and in decision.” (Resolution 24)

Yet in 1978 (Resolution 11) Lambeth said, “The Conference 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 Primates Committee, and requests the primates to initiate a study of the nature of authority within the Anglican Communion.”

Now as long as “consultation” isn’t interpreted as “seeking permission” this is fine. In fact, on the matter of women’s ordination, the Conference was “consulted” and the Primates “studied” the matter — but neither the consultation nor the study prevented (or was thought capable of preventing) the individual provinces from moving forward as they saw fit (to accept or reject this development).

A note on patience...

Patience does not imply inaction, nor is it reasonable to require absolute unanimity before a change is made in a given practice. (This is simply the way the church works, historically. As Newman pointed out many years ago in his essay on the development of doctrine, the Vincentian Canon is a kind of “legal fiction” since there have always been at least some who have rejected even the seemingly most basic credenda).

For us Anglicans, the dynamic of authority in the communion has been and is best worked out when each unit of the communion (with laity, clergy and bishops working together or in their separate orders) exercises its decision-making capability for the matters that it is competent (in accord with canon and tradition) to decide, even if those decisions may lead to a situation in which all things are not “in all places the same.” This is particularly true in questions of “rites and ceremonies” — which includes (and was believed by the framers of Anglicanism’s foundation documents to include) marriage and ordination.


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