The Lambeth Conferences are decennial assemblies of bishops of the Anglican Communion convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The first such conference took place in 1867.
As the Anglican Communion is an international association of autonomous national and regional churches and not a governing body, Lambeth Conferences serve a collaborative and consultative function, expressing "the mind of the communion" on issues of the day. Resolutions which a Lambeth Conference may pass are without legal effect, but they are nonetheless influential.
These conferences form one of the communion's four "Instruments of Communion".
The idea of these meetings was first suggested in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury by Bishop John Henry Hopkins of Vermont in 1851. The possibility of such an international gathering of bishops had first emerged during the Jubilee of the Church Missionary Society in 1851 when a number of US bishops were present in London.〔Morgan, D. (1967, revised edition) ''Bishops Come to Lambeth, The''; London, Mowbrays; p.49〕 However, the initial impetus came from episcopal churches in Canada. In 1865 the synod of that province, in an urgent letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr Longley), represented the unsettlement of members of the Canadian Church caused by recent legal decisions of the Privy Council, and their alarm lest the revived action of Convocation "should leave us governed by canons different from those in force in England and Ireland, and thus cause us to drift into the status of an independent branch of the Catholic Church".〔Davidson, R.T., (1920)''Five Lambeth Conferences, The'' London SPCK, p. 3〕
They therefore requested him to call a "national synod of the bishops of the Anglican Church at home and abroad",〔Davidson, op cit p.3〕 to meet under his leadership. After consulting both houses of the Convocation of Canterbury, Archbishop Longley assented, and convened all the bishops of the Anglican Communion (then 144 in number) to meet at Lambeth in 1867.
Many Anglican bishops (amongst them the Archbishop of York and most of his suffragans) felt so doubtful as to the wisdom of such an assembly that they refused to attend it, and Dean Stanley declined to allow Westminster Abbey to be used for the closing service, giving as his reasons the partial character of the assembly, uncertainty as to the effect of its measures and "the presence of prelates not belonging to our Church".〔Davidson, op cit.,p.12〕
Archbishop Longley said in his opening address, however, that they had no desire to assume "the functions of a general synod of all the churches in full communion with the Church of England", but merely to "discuss matters of practical interest, and pronounce what we deem expedient in resolutions which may serve as safe guides to future action".〔Davidson, op cit.,p.8〕
The resolutions of the Lambeth Conferences have never been regarded as synodical decrees, but their weight has increased with each conference.
Seventy-six bishops accepted the primate’s invitation to the first conference, which met at Lambeth on 24 September 1867 and sat for four days, the sessions being in private. The archbishop opened the conference with an address: deliberation followed; committees were appointed to report on special questions; resolutions were adopted, and an encyclical letter was addressed to the faithful of the Anglican Communion. Each of the subsequent conferences has been first received in Canterbury Cathedral and addressed by the archbishop from the chair of St. Augustine.
From the Second Conference, they have then met at Lambeth Palace, and after sitting for five days for deliberation upon the fixed subjects and appointment of committees, have adjourned, to meet again at the end of a fortnight and sit for five days more, to receive reports, adopt resolutions and to issue their encyclical letter.
From 1978 onwards the conference has been held on the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent allowing the bishops to live and worship together on the same site for the first time. In 1978 the bishops spouses were accommodated at the nearby St Edmund's School (an Anglican private school); this separation of spouses was not felt helpful, indeed, the wife of Archbishop Desmond Tutu was famously observed climbing in through the window of her husband's room to visit him, since the doors were locked. Since 1988 the spouses have also lived at the university.
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