The Archbishop of Canterbury has officially launched the Lambeth Conference 2008. He said,
The Conference has never been a lawmaking body in the strict sense and it wasn’t designed to be one: every local Anglican province around the world has its own independent system of church law and there is no supreme court. But there was already in 1867 a deep concern to find ways short of passing formal laws that would make sure that Anglicans around the world acted in a responsible way towards each other and stayed faithful to the common inheritance of biblical and doctrinal faith. This is as much a challenge now as it was then. But the very fact of the Conference shows that we have always been willing to look for such ways of setting our common life on a firm basis so that we can act and serve more effectively in our world.'a lawmaking body in the strict sense'? What other sense is there? This is playing with words: it was never a lawmaking body. Full stop.
The Conference this year has two key points of focus: strengthening the sense of a shared Anglican identity among the bishops from around the world, and helping to equip bishops for the role they increasingly have as leaders in mission, involved in a whole variety of ways in helping the Church grow. Because none of this would happen without a deeper commitment to prayer and studying the Bible, this year’s Conference will begin with a couple of days’ retreat, in which we can spend time together in quiet and begin to direct our minds towards the central issues of faith. And as in previous Conferences, every day will begin with worship and Bible study in small groups.
Of course in 1867 there were people who (despite the opposition of English Bishops who worked hard to keep the matter off the agenda) wanted an overt condemnation of Bishop Colenso whose supposed heresies had echoed all round the globe - at the speed of the postal service. Colenso's condemnation and Archbishop Gray's appointment of a rival bishop in Natal preciptated the first self-inflicted schism of the Anglican Communion.
Following the Conference a committee (including Bishop Cotterill of Grahamstown who had helped condemn Colenso) proposed an international court of doctrine.
(From something I wrote elsewhere:)
This had to be a voluntary court because such an arrangement would not have been acceptable, or even legal, in several parts of the Communion including America and Scotland as well as England. If a Province chose to recognise the constitution of the court it could refer cases from its own courts. The appeal would consider only those facts presented in the provincial courts and determine only whether the teaching of the accused was, or was not, permissible. The report proposed
That the Tribunal should use as standards of faith and doctrine by which its decisions shall be governed, those which are now in use in the United Church of England and Ireland; and that as to all matters not defined in such formularies, the judgements should be framed on any conclusions which shall be hereafter agreed to at any Council or Congress of the whole Anglican Communion; Provided always that no such conclusion be contradictory to any now existing standard or formulary of the Church of England; and provided further that the Synod of that Province of the Church from which the Appeal shall be sent, shall not have refused to accept such conclusion.
Judges would be drawn from a panel comprised of two bishops elected by each participating Province. The Archbishop of Canterbury would serve as President with a quorum of seven. They would sit with three theologians and three lawyers as assessors who would tender written advice. Judgement would be by at least a two-thirds majority of the judges, each giving their reasoned opinion in public and in writing.
The proposal had a number of inherent difficulties. The suggested standards of faith would have opened a Pandora’s box of disputation and nothing was said about the costs of the court. But in the main the recommendations went nowhere because the Anglican Communion was to develop as an associative body without central organs of coercive doctrinal authority.
Sound familiar? It's not so far from the use of the Primates' meeting as the final court for the adjudication of doctrine as envisaged in the Draft Anglican Covenant.
But the desire to see the Lambeth Conference as a legislature of any kind (with, presumably, the Archbishop of Canterbury as constitutional monarch, the ACC as executive, and the Primates as judiciary) is to read the trend of history in reverse.
In relation to doctrine the Lambeth Conference (and, in England, the development of synodical government) were alternative to legal proceedings. All the experience of nineteenth century legal approaches to doctrine was that such methods failed. There is no reason to think that twenty-first century lawyers will be better judges of doctrine than nineteenth-century lawyers. There is no reason to think that twenty-first century bishops will be any more careful of claims of justice than were nineteenth-century bishops. And the first case in which the Primates find against the promoters will result in the court being blamed for its perverse finding and sections of the church refusing its jurisdiction. Stalemate.
Conferences and synods developed (in part) in order to talk and to keep talking and to enable argument and disagreement to continue within manageable bounds. Discourse, not law, is what keeps a communion together, keeps doctrinal debate in play, and enable both the reassertion of orthodoxy and adaptation to novel circumstances to proceed with the assent and through the reception of the majority.
It won't please everyone. But, believe me, legal or semi-legal approaches to belief and faith will affront far, far more people.
Report of the Committee appointed under Resolution IX. of the Lambeth Conference, on the Constitution of a voluntary spiritual Tribunal, to which questions of Doctrine may be carried by Appeal from the Tribunals for the exercise of discipline in each Province of the Colonial Court. In Randall Davidson, ed., The Six Lambeth Conferences 1867-1920 (London, SPCK, 1920, re-issued 1929) pp. 62-65. Quotation p. 64. It was signed by Francis Fulford, Bishop of Montreal, as Chairman of the committee and by Henry Cotterill of Grahamstown as Secretary. Linked but separate reports were also submitted On the Courts of Metropolitans, and the Trial of a Bishop or Metropolitan, and a Scheme for conducting the Election of Bishops, when not otherwise provided for. Ibid. pp. 66-68.