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Monday, July 20, 1998 Published at 02:55 GMT 03:55 UK


Anglican brethren meet among divisions

The Archbishop of Canterbury greeted worshippers in Swahili

By Alex Kirby, Religious Affairs correspondent

[ image: Alex Kirby in Canterbury]
Alex Kirby in Canterbury
The opening service of the three-week long Lambeth Conference has been held in Canterbury Cathedral in the presence of the Prince of Wales.

The conference, held every 10 years, brings together Anglican bishops from around the world.

Among them, for the first time, are 11 women.

Some 70 million Anglicans around the world have been praying and planning it for months.

Scenes from Sunday's service at Canterbury cathedral: BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent Emily Buchanan reports
It is costing £2.2 million and has brought bishops from across the world to the very English city of Canterbury.

All the churches grew out of the Church of England. Its senior bishop, the Most Reverend George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, is the host and organiser of the event.

Alex Kirby: contentious issues ahead
But the Anglican Communion, as this federation of autonomous churches calls itself, is not the Vatican, and the mild Dr Carey would never dream of trying to be an Anglican Pope.

Honoured as the Communion's leader, he has no more actual power or authority than any of the other bishops in Canterbury.

Eucharist with a difference

The opening service of the Conference in Canterbury Cathedral was an exuberant affair. It was a celebration of the usual Anglican Sunday service, the Eucharist, which is similar to the Catholic Mass.

[ image: A South American gospel dance]
A South American gospel dance
But this was a Eucharist with a difference. The words of the service were those used in Kenya and the preacher was a bishop from Tanzania.

The wife of a Brazilian bishop read one passage from the Bible, in Portuguese, with another read in Arabic by the bishop of Egypt.

There were prayers in French and a Latin American dance group made its colourful way through the Cathedral.

Divisions over gays

Carey: Church has clear position on homosexuality
But however this first day went, there may well be demonstrations at some point during the conference by supporters of gay and lesbian rights.

Most Anglicans still regard homosexual activity as sinful and therefore believe that active lesbian and gay people cannot be priests.

[ image: Gay rights campaigners sang protest songs]
Gay rights campaigners sang protest songs
A small minority, though, believe, in the words of Bishop John Spong of Newark, New Jersey, that there is now scientific proof that sexual orientation is given, not chosen, and that homosexuality is no bar to the priesthood.

This is the 13th Lambeth Conference to be held. It is the first at which women bishops will attend, representing the Anglican churches of the USA, Canada and New Zealand.

[ image: Female bishops are attending their first conference]
Female bishops are attending their first conference
Each 'province' or regional grouping of churches makes its own rules. Some bishops from other provinces refuse to accept the appointment of women as bishops.

Those who feel strongly will not attend conference services conducted by women but will worship at all-male services in a church provided specially for them.

One bishop has stayed away from Canterbury altogether in protest.

Untidy church

Human sexuality will be one of the topics for discussion in the next three weeks. The conference will not come out with an instruction that all Anglicans must believe or act in a certain way.

The Anglican Communion is democratic, untidy, and probably very English. Anglicans pride themselves on their freedom, while their critics say they carry that freedom to excess, so that no-one knows what they really believe.

The best hope of avoiding a damaging split over homosexuality will be for the bishops to accept the proposal for a commission to study the matter further.

Some of them may say that is only putting off a decision that will inevitably have to be made sooner or later.

Full agenda

Traditionally, Lambeth Conferences have been times for the bishops to meet, work, pray and worship together, and to learn from one another in the process.

[ image: The Prince of Wales arrives at the service]
The Prince of Wales arrives at the service
This one is no different. Much of the participants' time will be spent in groups of no more than 10, praying, discussing, and reading the Bible together.

The rest of the formal conference agenda they'll devote to working in one of four main groups, tackling some of the big issues of the day for the church and the world.

They will be discussing Christians' relations with the world of Islam.

They will probably agree almost unanimously to press for the cancellation of the poor countries' unpayable debts, as a way of marking the Millennium.

There will also be sessions on AIDS, on the increasingly secular and materialist world the churches find themselves in, and on relations with other churches.

Pressing concerns

But for some of the bishops, there are more pressing problems back home than any of these.

Among the most preoccupied of the bishops must be those from Sudan. Three of them went to the Foreign Office last Monday to discuss the situation in their country with officials.

They said later that, without international intervention to prevent a jihad by the Muslim Government in Khartoum, there would be genocide on a scale "even higher than in Rwanda".

The Right Reverend Daniel Deng, bishop of Renk in southern Sudan, said: "In our country, we are broken by war and famine. We can't talk of [homosexuality]".

His colleague Bishop Joseph Marona of Maridi said the African bishops were united on the issue: "If one African bishop walks out, we all will. It is very painful for us".

There is plenty of room for bickering over the next three weeks.

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