The Lambeth Conference had its origin in 1865 when, on 20 September, the Provincial Synod of the Church of Canada unanimously agreed to urge the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Convocation of his Province to find a means by which the bishops consecrated within the Church of England and serving overseas could be brought together for a general council to discuss issues facing them in North America, and elsewhere. Part of the background for this request was a serious dispute about the interpretation and authority of the Scriptures which had arisen in southern Africa between Robert Gray, Archbishop of Cape Town and Bishop Colenso, Bishop of Natal.
Notwithstanding the opposition of a significant number of the bishops in England, Archbishop Longley invited Anglican bishops to their first conference together at Lambeth Palace on 24 September, 1867 , and the three following days. Seventy-six bishops finally accepted the invitation and the conference was called to order and met in the chapel of Lambeth Palace. A request to use Westminster Abbey for a service was not granted.
Of the seventy-six bishops attending the first Lambeth Conference the distribution was the following: England 18, Ireland 5, Scotland 6, Colonial and missionary bishops 28, United States 19.
It was made clear at the outset that the conference would have no authority of itself as it was not competent to make declarations or lay down definitions on points of doctrine. It did not take any effective action regarding the issues raised by Bishop Colenso but it explored many aspects of possible inter-Anglican cooperation.
In 1878 the second Lambeth Conference was convened by Archbishop Tait and 100 bishop attended. The heavy agenda included "Modern forms of infidelity." It marked another milestone in the growth of the relationship of diverse parts of the Anglican Communion and reinforced the value of the meeting of Anglican bishops to share their common experience.
One hundred and forty five bishops attend the Lambeth Conference of 1888 called by Archbishop Benson. Meeting at Lambeth Palace in the library, its agenda addressed such contemporary issues as intemperance, purity, divorce, care of immigrants and socialism. More important for the ongoing life of the church itself the agenda concerned itself with the issues of ecumenism. In 1886 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States, meeting in Chicago, had derived a formula which provided a basic framework of recognition of 'authentic' Christian tradition. This formula, known as the Chicago Quadrilateral, was a statement, from the Anglican standpoint, of the essentials for a reunited Christian Church. The four main elements were:
The 1888 conference taking this statement, promulgated the first of several successive versions of what has become known as "The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral," a major contribution of the Anglican Communion to the evolving search for unity among the churches.
The 1897 Lambeth Conference was attended by 194 bishops and presided over by Archbishop Fredrick Temple. There were two main matters in interest. Firstly, the conference warmly commended the concept of deaconesses; and secondly, it asked for the establishment of a Consultative Committee which was to be the direct ancestor of the Anglican Consultative Council.
The conference of 1908 with Archbishop Davidson in the chair was attended by 242 bishops and concerned itself with the issues of the ministry of healing, the possible revision of the prayer book and the supply and training of the clergy.
The Lambeth Conference should have convened again in 1918 but this was postponed due to the outbreak of the Great War. Much had changed in the way in which many people understood the world around them when the next conference met in 1920. This conference, attended by 252 bishops, was dominated by the subject of church unity. The celebrated "Appeal to All Christian People" which was promulgated at the 1920 conference invited other churches to accept episcopacy as the indispensable precondition for their unity with Anglicans. Developing from the consideration of the 1897 conference there was also greater sympathy for a more prominent role for women in the governing and in the ministry of the church. The 1920 conference addressed itself to the issues of contraception and rejected its use outright.
The 1930 conference was presided over by Archbishop Cosmo Lang, 307 bishops in attendance. It proved to be a very crowed occasion in the Lambeth Palace library. The momentum towards church unity in South India found support, encouraging Anglicans in the Indian sub-continent to enter seriously into discussions related to a United Church in India.
Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher presided over two conferences - 1948 attended by 349 bishops and 1958 attended by 310 bishops. By 1948 the Church of South India was an accomplished fact. In 1958 the United Church of North India was welcomed. Nuclear disarmament was an issue in 1958 with the majority being in favor of disarmament and the report on the family was a milestone with its sensitive treatment of the subject of contraception within marriage. The 1958 conference approved the appointment of the first Anglican Executive Officer (Bishop Stephen F. Bayne) thus assisting in the evolution both of the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury and of inter-Anglican structures. This was also the first conference in which wives of the bishops were taken in to account in the planning and organization.
The conference of 1968 , under Archbishop Ramsey, attended by 462 bishops. With this conference it was no longer possible to meet at Lambeth Palace and the conference was thus convened in the Church Assembly Hall at Church House, Westminster. Preparatory papers were offered to members of the conference written by expert consultants and some 35 committees prepared the work for the final report. The issue of the ordination of women came forward and a proposed constitution for the establishment of the Anglican Consultative Council was agreed to.
Another change of venue was to find the 1978 conference meeting residentially in the University of Kent in Canterbury under Archbishop Coggan. Living and worshiping together gave a new community dynamic to the conference. Again, preparatory work was a key element in the deliberations of the conference and an important factor in this was the development of the work and role of the Anglican Consultative Council whose full Standing Committee was present for the conference. Among the important and controversial issues on the agenda of the 1978 conference was the subject of the ordination of women to the priesthood, training of bishops, human rights, and the evolving inter-Anglican bodies.
The 1988 conference, under Archbishop Ronald Runcie, had approximately 500 bishops in attendance. The conference dealt with the question of the inter-relation of Anglican international bodies and a number of issues like Marriage and Family, Human Rights, Poverty and Debt, Environment, Militarism, Justice and Peace.
The work of the 1998, under Archbishop George Leonard Carey, realized the highest number of nearly 750 bishops attending the Lambeth Conference. Approximately 30 % of the total number of bishops were from Africa, which is now the biggest regional grouping. For the first time Anglican women bishops participated since all 11 were consecrated since the last Lambeth Conference. The conference took place in four major sections, namely: Called to Full Humanity, Called to Live and Proclaim the Good News, Called to be Faithful in a Plural World and Called to be One. Its primary purpose was to enable the bishops to consult with one another. Most of the work was therefore carried out in small groups and discussed and refined in the sections. Another important issue was the growing concern of the differences of opinion over the place of homosexuals in the church. There was also the question with far-reaching economic and human impact, that of international debt.
(Taken from "Who Are the Anglicans?" - Charles Henry Long, Editor, except for synopsis of 1988 and 1998 Lambeth Conferences).