Synods of Thieves? Lambeth and the Latrocinium

Synods of Thieves? Lambeth and the Latrocinium

By Dr. Dan Beck

I want to share with you one observation and two concerns about the Lambeth conference.

First, I am struck by the similarities of Lambeth with the ancient council which met in Ephesus in 449. I'm well aware that you all studied ancient conciliarism in seminary, and I don't mean to be a presumptuous lay person lecturing the clergy on church history, so simply let me refresh your memory.

Crucial events which precipitated the council at Ephesus included the condemnation of the archimandrite Eutyches, friend of the Alexandrian school of christology, by a local synod in Constantinople for holding the idea that there was but one nature in the incarnate Christ. There were, however, a whole constellation of issues implicitly on the table, including basic issues of biblical interpretation and soteriology, which deeply divided eastern Christendom into Alexandrian and Antiochean camps.

Crucial events leading up to Lambeth included the recent decision in the heresy trial of Bishop Righter that the church in the U.S. had no 'core doctrine' on same-sex couples pertaining to the clergy and their ordination. There were, as in Ephesus, a whole constellation of issues in the hearts and minds of the bishops, including basic issues of biblical interpretation and soteriology, which deeply divided the entire Anglican communion into opposing camps.

Next, at the council of Ephesus, crucial testimony was suppressed. The sessions at Ephesus were dominated by an agenda set by Dioscorus, recent Patriarch of Alexandria, who made sure that the opinion of Pope Leo I expressed in his Tome and sent to the council was denied a reading, lest the personal sympathy Leo shared with the enemies of Dioscorus sway any of the bishops.

In a similar sense, the Lambeth sessions of the human sexuality commission were dominated by a party of conservative bishops working out of the Franciscan Center, and after an apparently-orchestrated and dramatic walk-out by the African bishops, the scheduled session to hear the witness of gay and lesbian clergy was canceled. Lesbian and gay people were denied a hearing lest their testimony have an influence on the decision of the many bishops who may never have met an openly gay Christian.

Next, the enemies of the Alexandrians were spared no calumny on the floor of the council. They were accused of engaging in the most fantastic and outrageous crimes, including bigamy, blasphemy, and even magic. When the defense of an accused bishop was offered to the council, they refused to listen, shouting: "These things pollute our ears."

Similarly and sadly, at Lambeth, bishops sympathetic to gay and lesbian Christians came under withering attack as the exemplars of heresy in the church. Bishop Chukwuma of Enugu in Nigeria announced: "Desmond Tutu is dead spiritually." "Homosexuals betray the cause of Christ," the bishop of Pakistan proclaimed.

Next, coercion and tactics of bullying typified the conduct of business on the floor. It was reported that Dioscorus physically attacked the patriarch of Constantinople. Many of the bishops signed the crucial statement under the threat of bodily harm from an Alexandian bodyguard of imperial soldiers and monks; some signed a blank paper; some never signed at all, the names being afterwards filled in of all who were actually present. The legate from Rome announced 'contradicitur' when the vote was taken, and then fled the hall.

Similarly, at Lambeth, once the parliamentary landslide had been engineered, boos and hisses were directed at anyone who voted against the sexuality resolution. Whispered accusations of racism were hurled at courageous bishops who dared to cast a dissenting vote. When all was done, the triumphant bishops emerged from the hall chanting 'V-I-C-T-O-R-Y'.

Finally, when the council concluded, the victors moved immediately to proclaim its universal authority and to demand obedience to its dictates throughout the church. Dioscorus immediately sent out an encyclical to all the bishops of the East together with a form of adhesion to the council which they were to sign.

Similarly, in the wake of Lambeth, we have heard from various sources that the 'church has spoken' definitively at the conference, and that obedience should follow. Most recently this message was sent to the presiding bishop in this country with vague threats of schism and church chaos if he did not comply.

Thankfully, a kind of nullification happened soon after Ephesus. Leo announced that he refused its authority, calling the meeting a 'latrocinium', a 'synod of thieves.' Within two years the condemnations of the council were overturned by another council meeting at Chalcedon, which restored condemned bishops to honor and established a definition of the 'natures' of Christ which has endured the test of time.

Similarly, nullification has spontaneously emerged in the wake of Lambeth. The sense that the conference of bishops fell prey to a well-financed and well-coordinated political Putsch has grown such that several U.S. dioceses have passed resolutions rejecting its authority. How General Convention will respond remains to be seen.

Here are my two concerns:

First, conciliarism as a method of deciding policy for an international communion is extremely vulnerable to political manipulation. This was as true at Lambeth as it was at Ephesus. Most historians agree that underlying issue of the more ancient authority of the See of Alexandria against the recently hatched Patriarchate of Constantinople was the emotional root of the conflict which erupted into the disaster of Ephesus. Basic philosophical differences combined with certain subtle doctrinal issues of christology to serve as symbols of much deeper issues of power and influence. Likewise, at Lambeth a conflict over perceived values in this country coupled with the much larger issues of wealth and poverty in the world at large allowed the debates on homosexuality to emerge as the defining issue of Christian doctrine.

As a rule, conciliarism doesn't seem to last long under fire. Greek Christendom's commitment to ecumenical councils started to falter when dualing councils began to generate nothing but more and more schism. Latin Christendom responded to the ecclesiastical turmoil of councils by affirming a monarchical and magisterial authority in the papacy. An ecumenical church represented by its bishops simply proved too vulnerable to personal manipulation to survive without a definite constitution.

We Anglicans face a similar crisis. The vague and conciliar spirit of a congenial gathering of bishops which inspired the first Lambeth conference a century ago now has faltered under the test of political pressure. We therefore have entered a period of constitutional crisis in which some voices are calling for a stronger centralized and international authority which would have the ability to adjudicate diocesan or national quarrels: an Anglican papacy, if you will. The more authority-minded bishops are now openly talking of schism as a means of establishing this concentration of power. On the other hand, the more widespread and significant drift -- at least in this country -- is in the opposite direction. As parishes in this country quietly abandon the authority of church assemblies, they have precipitated a headlong retreat into a form of Episcopal congregationalism devoid of a sense of stake in a larger church mission. Most Episcopalians in this country are, in short, fast jettisoning any sense of what it means to a catholic body.

Second, as I see it, the art of Christian orthodoxy is a careful combination of definition and reticence, and the majority of bishops at Lambeth did not appreciate this art. The purported christological issues of Ephesus were resolved two years later at Chalcedon in the definition of the natures of Christ which affirmed humanity and divinity without defining the philosophical subtleties of either nature. Their careful avoidance of precision opened the way to a consensus in which a broad variety of interpretations would fit. The truth of Christianity was thereby constructed in a broad enough fashion that it became an umbrella over a variety of beliefs.

Anglicans have long embraced reticence as an important aspect of orthodoxy. The Elizabethan settlement attempted a Eucharistic formula which would accommodate a broad spectrum of theologies. The latitudinarian bishops of the Restoration fought for a church broad enough that both Puritan and Laudian might find a home. And Anglicans accomplished this comprehensiveness by resisting the temptation to define the faith to the exclusion of our faithful brothers and sisters.

Where the bishops at Chalcedon got the balance right; the bishops at Lambeth erred on the side of precision. When they rendered judgment on same-sex love as 'incompatible with Scripture', the Lambeth bishops moved to overturn the more biblical and orthodox affirmations of the U.S. General Conventions which simultaneously affirmed the sacred value of the marriage of woman and man while recognizing that God's grace in human relations may be present in ways not envisioned in traditional marriage canons. The move to make a definitive statement on this matter at Lambeth resulted in an unnecessarily exclusive definition of the limits of the Christian family and of the love which binds it. The price we are paying for this precision is sending out our most precious gift to the world, the gospel, encumbered with the message that God is more concerned with sex than with love, with whom you love rather than how you love them, in short, with conformity to law than with life in the spirit. It's a very high price to pay.

Daniel Beck


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