Page last updated at 17:44 GMT, Monday, 4 August 2008 18:44 UK

Lambeth diary: Anglicans in turmoil

The Lambeth Conference has ended in Canterbury amid controversy over the issue of homosexual bishops.

The BBC's religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott recorded his final thoughts from the conference, as debate on the vital issues facing the Church unfolded.


All through Sunday night Anglican bishops were leaving their student rooms on the campus of the University of Kent and getting into mini-buses and taxis for the airport, and journeys to most of the 160 countries they represent.

After almost three weeks in Canterbury what would they have to tell their scattered flocks about the state of the fractured Anglican Communion? Did they succeed in bringing it back from the brink of schism?

Rowan Williams
Dr Wililams appealed to bishops to transcend the dispute

The 670 bishops who turned up for the conference will probably report that the Communion - the association of 38 self-governing Anglican churches - is worth fighting for.

The bleaker its prospects have looked, the keener its bishops have appeared to preserve it.

They will have to admit that they barely even tried to bridge the gulf in their understanding of what the Bible teaches about homosexuality.

They must have noticed that radicals on both the liberal and conservative wings of Anglicanism have developed their attitude towards homosexuality into an article of faith.

New plan

The prospect of full sessions of all the bishops in parliamentary-style debate about the rights and wrongs of ordaining gay bishops must have filled the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams with horror. There would have been the prospect of deeper estrangement, and at worst bishops walking out.

So Dr Williams promoted another plan, and used the conference to appeal to the bishops to see their Anglicanism as transcending the dispute which reached crisis point after the Episcopal Church in the United States ordained the openly gay bishop Gene Robinson in 2003.

The long-term plan is for an agreement, or "covenant".

It would mean setting down the basic principles of Anglicanism and agreeing to be bound by them.

Some of the practices of certain dioceses in the American church continue to put our relations as a communion under strain
Dr Rowan Williams

A special body - it might be called the "pastoral forum" - would judge whether the actions of individual Anglican churches were within the rules or not.

Dr Williams told the bishops that their churches should be ready to sacrifice some of their independence in order to preserve the Communion.

He said that to work, the covenant would require a ban on the ordination of gay bishops and another on the public blessing of homosexual relationships in church services.

He told a press conference that unless the liberal American and Canadian churches accepted the need for a ban on gay bishops and blessings, "then to say the least we are no further forward…"

He added: "Some of the practices of certain dioceses in the American church continue to put our relations as a communion under strain, and some problems won't be resolved while those practices continue."

It remains doubtful that the liberal Episcopal Church would compromise its independence by signing a binding agreement.

Stacy Sauls, the Bishop of Lexington in Kentucky, said he could not support the majority view of the Bible that homosexual practice was wrong.

He said: "If the choice is that the only way I can persuade them to stay in relationship with us is to change what I believe, I can't do that with integrity. I think all of us believe that being faithful to God is even of greater importance that being faithful to each other."

It may be that the more than 200 bishops who boycotted the conference in protest at the presence there of American bishops who helped ordain Gene Robinson might also refuse to sign up.

But Rowan Williams' real battle is to win the support of the large moderate conservative middle ground.

'Intensification' strategy

The Archbishop of the West Indies, Drexel Gomez, is chairman of the committee working on the covenant.

He claims that although the bishops in Canterbury did not want to adopt a Roman Catholic-style hierarchy, they did now accept the need for some mechanism to hold the Communion together.

"I've spoken to several bishops who were opposed to it, and who are now willing to give it a try", he said.

In the past the centre ground of Anglicanism has seemed paralysed, unable to act decisively for fear of losing the liberal Americans and their allies altogether.

But the aim of the new strategy appears to be to isolate the radical liberal and conservative wings of Anglicanism, and create a new, more organised and directed, Communion with or without them.

The Rev Dr Graham Kings, of the moderate evangelical group Fulcrum, said the strategy was one of "intensification".

The new Communion would be more active, have a corporate presence around the world, more high-level meetings, and possibly regional representatives among the archbishops.

Dr Kings says this time, no-one will be allowed a veto.

"Now you don't have to join us, and that would be sad", he says. "But…that's not going to stop us in terms of moving on…it's church history in the making."

So no-one will be expelled for failing to sign the covenant, but they could find themselves in an outer sphere of the Anglican Communion. Dr Williams is banking on that being a better place to be than outside the Communion altogether.

He can afford to take that gamble, because as he himself has admitted, without an binding agreement, "further disintegration" seems unavoidable.


Amid the confusion caused by their divisions over what the Bible teaches about homosexuality, Anglican bishops meeting for the Lambeth Conference have come to realise one thing - that the Anglican Communion cannot continue as it is.

Information from the bishops' discussion of the subject shows an awareness of the enormous gulf in how each side views the very nature of Anglicanism.

For Anglicans, as the bishops' reflections document explains, "in some parts [much of Africa, for a start] homosexual and lesbian relations are a taboo; in others [the United States, for example] it has become a justice issue".

There's a growing acceptance that divisions are likely to intensify, and that the Episcopal Church in the United States is likely to ordain another gay bishop before very long.

Meanwhile the conservative alliance set up in Jerusalem last month - the traditionalist church-within-the-church that thumbed its nose at the Lambeth Conference and at the Archbishop of Canterbury - will continue to recruit and organise inside the Episcopal Church's territory.

The official group set up to find a way out of the crisis acknowledged it faced "a long and arduous road" in rescuing the Communion.

In fact, if things simply stay as they are there might not even be another Lambeth Conference.

Bishops at Lambeth Conference
Dr Williams told delegates the communion needed some structure

But a curious thing has happened. As pessimism about the chances of reconciliation has increased, so has the desire to preserve and stay inside the Communion.

It seems that this affection for the fractured family home, its history and the prestige it still commands, is about to be exploited by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his efforts to find an alternative to absolute and permanent in the world's third largest Christian denomination.

There was a clue in Dr Williams' second main address to all 670 bishops in Canterbury.

He referred repeatedly to a focus on "the centre".

He said all sides would have to check their natural instinct to "cling to one dimension of the truth" about Anglicanism.

As Dr Williams made clear, this means the 38 independent churches of the Communion giving up part of their autonomy.

He said he did not want to create either a Roman Catholic style hierarchy or a loose confederation of churches, but the communion needed some structure.

'Further disintegration'

Some sort of council (it might be called a "pastoral commission") would judge how far actions such as the ordination of an actively gay bishop were out of bounds, and consider real sanctions.

In order to give the commission authority there would be a binding agreement - in Church-speak, a "covenant" - and this is where the pessimists have been most convinced of their case.

It is pretty clear that the Episcopal Church would not sign up to an agreement that ruled out ordaining gay bishops and blessing the relationships of gay couples.

It has come to look like a declaration of independence by the moderate middle of the communion, and Dr Williams himself

It seems dubious that for their part conservative African archbishops would commit to something that ruled out their interventions in America to provide a home for traditionalists.

Until now, both sides have seemed to have a veto, a final say - condemning the communion to an unsustainable status quo, and what Dr Williams referred to as "further disintegration".

But that's where Dr Williams' Lambeth Conference coup might emerge.

Call the bluff of both sides - traditionalist and liberal - and allow a revamped "centre" to sign up to a covenant whether or not the Americans or their conservative critics in Africa and elsewhere choose to join in.

Remove their veto, and create a new communion able to move forward without them.

If this is the strategy - and it looks highly likely - it could explain the increasingly frank acceptance of senior figures that some will choose not to commit to the covenant.

It has come to look like a declaration of independence by the moderate middle of the communion, and Dr Williams himself.

Acceptable boundaries

When one of the committee responsible for the covenant - Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies - spoke to journalists in Canterbury, he said his group was "working on something that will have acceptance by the majority of the [churches of the communion].

We will have to make space for those who can't sign up yet", he said. "We will always leave the door open".

At the same press conference the Archbishop of Brisbane, Phillip Aspinall, acknowledged that it would "difficult for some [churches] to enter".

Their "autonomy is important and jealously guarded," he said.

But the sub-text has been: "You don't have to join, but you're not going to stop us".

So a new communion will be born, committed for the first time to an explicit set of principles

Archbishop Gomez was at pains to minimise the idea of churches being punished - because they wouldn't agree to end the blessing of gay bishops, for example.

"It's not a punitive document" he said.

"It's a pilgrimage and the document is designed to help people to walk along that road".

Think of it like the EU with its varying enthusiasm for closer union.

When countries like the UK stay out of the single currency or the shelving of border restrictions, an inner core of the Union carries on anyway.

It's not that anyone is being punished, nor is their "Europeanness" being impugned. But they may be left behind.

So a new communion will be born, committed for the first time to an explicit set of principles and a mechanism for resolving whether particular actions (blessing same-sex relationships for example, lay people presiding over holy communion perhaps) inside the acceptable boundaries or outside.

No-one who is now considered an Anglican will be declared not to be one, but those who failed to join the "dynamic" inner core could not expect to be invited to Lambeth 2016 or the other representative bodies of the Church.

It's likely this new communion will be decidedly post-colonial.

It will recognise that the centre of gravity has shifted from the developed world towards the populous churches of the developing world, and could have a representative council made up of archbishops elected by the churches of individual continents.

There would be a real "corporate presence" for the Communion in the 160 countries included in it.

It would, hopes Dr Williams, escape the paralysis of debate about homosexuality, to concentrate on poverty, Aids, famine and the lack of clean water.

Trouble shooter

But how would the left-behind non-signatories react?

Would they decide to leave?

It's far from impossible.

One critical group will be watched particularly carefully

The rich Episcopal Church might envisage its own mini-communion, including Canada, Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand and most of Australia among other churches.

The traditionalist alliance established in Jerusalem last month might see its future outside the communion.

Dr Williams, and the other leaders of the "intensified centre", are counting on the continuing attachment to the communion, the distinctive "reformed Catholicism" it represents, and its long history and shared traditions, to persuade those who reject the covenant to accept their second-class status and stay more or less within the fold.

One critical group will be watched particularly carefully.

They are the American traditionalists who have left the Episcopal Church because of its liberal attitude to homosexuality, and are planning to set up a parallel church there.

The Williams strategy would place them under the care of the "pastoral commission" - the same new authority that the Anglican Communion has lacked up until now.

They would be part of the communion, with its traditionalist approach to homosexuality, and would have the chairman of the pastoral commission to minister to them.

A lot hangs on who is selected for that vital role.

He will have to command respect across the spectrum of Anglicanism.

He will have to appeal to American traditionalists in particular.

He will be Rowan Williams' trouble-shooter - responsible for stopping disputes about issues such as homosexuality before they take on a life of their own.

Whoever is appointed to personify the unprecedented discipline and "structure" in the Anglican Communion, and whether or not Rowan Williams' gamble pays off, it seems a little bit of church history will be made at Lambeth 2008 after all.


After two weeks of discussion on issues such as the environment and mission, Anglican bishops turned their attention to homosexuality on Thursday. Some traditionalists have criticised the way that formal debate of the very issue that is tearing the Anglican Communion apart has been left to the final few days of the Conference.

Even then the 670 bishops in Canterbury for the conference were split up into groups of only 40 to talk about homosexuality, and what the Bible teaches about it.

There was no vote, and no resolution. The media was excluded from the discussions, but conference officials acknowledged that none of the bishops had changed his or her mind about sexuality.

Significant steps

The Archbishop of Brisbane Philip Aspinall was asked what the point of the exercise had been.

"Significant steps are being taken in relationships between the bishops" he insisted. "We might not have reached consensus - in fact we certainly haven't reached consensus - but I believe people are feeling that significant growth is occurring."

But that doesn't satisfy traditionalists who argue that the Communion is facing its greatest ever crisis, and is missing a once-a-decade opportunity to deal with it.

Head to head debates that create winners or losers do not necessarily resolve difficult issues in the life of the church

Professor Ian Douglas, divinity lecturer

They recall the last Lambeth Conference in 1998, which produced a resolution describing active homosexuality as incompatible with the Bible. They say splitting the discussion up into lots of small groups has the effect not of solving the problem but kicking it into the long grass.

However, a liberal theologian who helped design the Lambeth Conference, said the small group system was designed to give every bishop the chance of being heard.

Professor Ian Douglas, a lecturer at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the conference could have adopted full sessions with parliamentary style debates designed to force a decision, but that it would probably have made the divisions far worse.

Radically different view

He acknowledged that there had been some concern among bishops about the way the conference was set up, but insisted that "head-to-head debates that create winners or losers do not necessarily resolve difficult issues in the life of the church - as compared to face-to-face encounters".

There have been plenty of face-to-face encounters outside the conference too, including a play put on by students from the University of West Michigan that sought to challenge the traditionalist reading of seven biblical passages traditionalists believe rule out active homosexuality. It presented a radically different view of the same verses, one far more sympathetic to gay people.

Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali
High-profile Church of England bishops have boycotted the conference

Elsewhere on the University of Kent campus, gay Anglicans from churches in Africa danced and jigged to the beat of drums to catch the eye of media starved of access to official events. Davis MacIyalla described being disowned by his Church, simply, he claimed, because he was honest enough to accept his sexuality. He claimed that several of the 670 bishops in Canterbury were also gay, but were simply too timid to admit it.

Leave to remain

Mr MacIyalla, who was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK last week because of his fear of persecution at home in Nigeria, said there would be no solution to the communion's crisis over homosexuality until bishops were able to accept the large number of gay people under their care.

Information is slowly emerging from the encounters inside the conference too. Reports from the "reflections" committee have revealed the often conflicting opinions within the small discussion groups. There's been criticism of churches that take innovative action - presumably such as ordaining gay bishops - without regard to the effect on other Anglicans.

However one report also described the fight for social justice (which is how liberal Anglicans think of the need fully to include gay people) as being a function of the Church.

Expensive exercise

However it's clear that the bishops will not solve the dispute about homosexuality. They didn't even dare to try, for fear of making the tensions worse. Instead the conference has been an expensive exercise in repairing broken relationships, restoring damaged trust and even calming jangled nerves.

But the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is hoping for one significant development. Dr Williams told the bishops that unless they came up with a set of the common values, shared Anglican principles, and an agreement to abide by them, he could see nothing but further disintegration ahead.

The agreement - or "covenant" - will not spring fully-formed from the conference, and it would need to be ratified by each of the 38 autonomous Anglican Churches in the world.

Its chances of success also depend on how much of the renewed sense of fraternity and goodwill, in which the Lambeth Conference has invested so heavily, lasts when the bishops scatter next week to their homes all over the world.


Two weeks into the Lambeth Conference the bishops are getting the chance to discuss what many think is easily the most important issue facing the Anglican Communion - homosexuality.

Traditionalist Anglicans say active homosexuality is quite simply outlawed by the Bible.

Liberals say the Bible should be reinterpreted - as it always has been - in the light of contemporary experience.

Since the ordination, by the liberal Episcopal Church in the US, of the openly gay bishop Gene Robinson five years ago, the arguments about what the Bible teaches about homosexuality have become more bitterly entrenched.

Including actively gay people in the Church has become almost an article of faith for some liberal Anglicans, just as resisting the spread of the "liberal agenda" has become one for traditionalists.

That was partly why traditionalists held a rival Lambeth Conference in Jerusalem last month and set up their own church within a church to combat what they regard as an unwarranted reinterpretation of the Bible.

It was also motivated by the growing suspicion that the issue of what to do about the American church was being kicked into the long grass.

Some in Canterbury harbour a similar suspicion about the way the conference was set up, with the formal discussion of sexuality only in the last few days and without any vote or resolution.

Collective attitude

Wednesday's debate about sexuality is taking place, like all the others, among groups of only 40 bishops.

Their views will be represented to a larger committee, which in turn will reflect the collective attitude of the conference.

Traditionalists argue that with bishops gathered together like this just once every decade, an opportunity to stop the rot inside the communion is being missed.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, says there has been plenty of discussion about the issue during the whole conference - he's referred to it himself in addresses to the bishops.

He argues that votes and resolutions have done little to promote unity in the past.

It's more important to be faithful to the gospel that faithful to each other
Stacy Sauls
Bishop of Lexington

Dr Williams may not want to repeat the debate at the last Lambeth Conference in 1998 (which formally resolved that homosexual practice was incompatible with the teaching of the Bible) but he does want a more general agreement about what Anglicanism is and a way of preserving it.

It would come in the form of a "covenant", a statement of beliefs shared by the 38 Churches of the Communion and an agreement to stick to them.

A failure to sign could even mean some sort of "diminished status" in the Communion.

There would be a body to decide whether innovations, such as ordaining gay bishops, represented a threat to the shared values.

So the long-awaited debate about homosexuality is taking place in private, in the hope that two weeks of fellowship and Bible study will have produced the best possible environment for seeing - even accepting - the other point of view.

Dr Williams says a covenant is necessary to prevent further disintegration in the Communion.

A meeting of minds on homosexuality could only help to produce agreement on a covenant too.

'Big ask'

The working group considering what a covenant would look like has already made it clear that there would need to be an end to the blessing of same-sex relationships in church and no more ordinations of gay bishops.

Conservative African archbishops would have to halt the formation of parallel Church bodies in America for traditionalists who leave the Episcopal Church because of its liberal approach.

Getting the Episcopal Church to meet its side of that bargain would be what's known as "a big ask".

It would be reluctant to give up its independence or to compromise what many see as central to American Anglicanism.

The Bishop of Lexington in Kentucky, Stacy Sauls, a liberal Episcopalian said he couldn't see his church making long-term promises of this sort.

"It's more important to be faithful to the gospel than faithful to each other," he said, "although you can't really have one without the other."

Bishop Sauls would best like to see a solution like the Elizabethan Settlement that united the Catholic and Protestant movements into the Church of England.

He said it would mean concentrating on shared worship rather than worrying about differences in the detail of belief.

Crucially it would also mean allowing the autonomous Anglican churches to stay independent.

It would be a tall order for any covenant to deliver, but it seems to be the only hope.


It was one of Rowan Williams' last opportunities to appeal to the bishops to look beyond their differences over homosexuality to a shared identity as Anglicans.

In his second address as president of the Lambeth Conference, Dr Williams told the bishops that they must check their natural instinct to cling to only one dimension of "the truth" about Anglicanism.

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Williams suggests a "covenant" of shared beliefs
The gulf between the "truths" about what the Bible teaches about homosexuality as conceived by traditionalist and liberal Anglicans has steadily widened and deepened in the five years since the Episcopal Church in America confirmed the selection of an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.

In essence, traditionalists say several passages in the Bible clearly outlaw active homosexuality, but liberal Anglicans say the Bible's general message is for all people to be included in the Church.

But the argument has taken on a life of its own, and has changed facts on the ground.

This is principally in the setting up by conservative African archbishops of parallel church organisations in the United States for traditionalists who have left the Episcopal Church because of its liberal approach to homosexuality.

Distilled arguments

The process has pushed each side further and further towards regarding its "truth" about homosexuality as a defining characteristic of Anglicanism.

At the same time each side has developed an increasing suspicion of the other's motives - with many coming to believe they are fighting to prevent a takeover of their Church, the Communion, even Anglicanism itself.

So Dr Williams tried to distil the argument first of traditionalists and then of liberals, expressing each accurately and bluntly enough, but in the sort of terms that could make you believe compromise was still possible.

Bishops at Lambeth Conference
More than 200 bishops have boycotted the conference over gay clergy
He admitted it felt both "presumptuous" and "risky", a sign of how deeply entrenched the opposing sides have become.

In Dr Williams' version, for example, traditionalists say to liberals: "We don't see why welcoming the gay or lesbian person [into the Church] must mean blessing what they do in the Church's name [for example blessing same-sex relationships], or accepting them for ordination [for example as bishops], whatever their lifestyle."

As Dr Williams would have it, liberals say in response that they feel the spiritual life of their churches has been enhanced by "acknowledging the [spiritual] gifts of gay and lesbian believers. They will certainly be likely to feel that the restraint you ask for is a betrayal. Please try to see why this is such a dilemma for many of us".

Wriggle room

In the context of such relatively benign exchanges, Dr Williams sees wriggle room, the possibility of each side shelving if not their differences, then their fortified positions.

"At the moment," he told the bishops, "we seem often to be threatening death to each other, not offering life.

Bishop of New Hampshire Gene Robinson
The consecration of openly gay US bishop Gene Robinson sparked the row
"What some see as confused or reckless innovation in some provinces [the ordination of Gene Robinson in America for example] is felt as a body-blow to integrity of mission and as a matter of physical risk to Christians [to Anglicans living tensely with Muslim neighbours in northern Nigeria for instance]."

Dr Williams said the only solution he could see was a "covenant" - some sort of statement of shared beliefs and a more-or-less binding agreement to stick to them.

It would mean a body - perhaps a "pastoral forum" - to decide how far innovations such as the ordination of gay bishops represented a departure from Anglican tradition, and what action might be take against churches that carried them out.

Two-tier proposal

Such an agreement could not be imposed, and it would be hard to persuade some of the 38 autonomous Anglican churches making up the Communion (especially the Episcopal Church) to give up their closely guarded independence.

However, one suggestion from the group working on a potential covenant has been for a "diminished status" within the Communion, opening the way to a two-tier organisation or confederation as preferable to an outright and permanent split.

Perhaps the Americans might accept a hundred years or so in the "outer ring" of Anglicanism as the price they paid for their "inclusive" approach to homosexual people.

And perhaps the traditionalists might reluctantly accept such a sanction as sufficient to call off the campaign for "orthodoxy" they began in Jerusalem last month.

Some have suspected the aim of the Lambeth Conference's organisers has been to keep controversy at bay.

A two-tier Communion might kick the ball of division into some very long grass.


As the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams acknowledged today, the Anglican Communion is a bit hazy about exactly what it is.

"We're not a church, like the Roman Catholic Church", said Dr Williams, "but nor are we like the International Lutheran Federation. We're somewhere in the middle."

Being somewhere in the middle sometimes seems to be the Anglican Communion's problem, especially as it tries to solve its bitter dispute over homosexuality, and disputes over what the Bible teaches on the subject.

Traditionalists used the last Lambeth Conference 10 years ago to enshrine the prevailing view that active homosexuality was incompatible with the Bible in a formal resolution.

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams
Some traditionalists have openly questioned Dr Williams' authority

They would like to enforce this majority view on every part of the Communion, especially the liberal churches of the United States and Canada that prompted the crisis by ordaining a gay bishop in 2003 and blessing same-sex relationships.

Proposals for a document setting out core Anglican beliefs and a binding agreement to abide by them were mooted as a way of dealing with the divisions over sexuality.

The agreement - or "covenant" - would set out at least to make Anglican churches accountable to each other, to reach a common understanding of what the Communion was, and to establish some sort of shared view of Anglican beliefs.

Traditionalists are unlikely to be satisfied with an agreement that fails to confirm a strict interpretation of the Bible and its centrality to how an Anglican should behave.

Liberals will stress the need for inclusiveness, relevance to the society in which individual churches operate, and their tradition of independence.

Looser federation

But there was powerful support for the idea of a binding agreement of beliefs and an undertaking to abide by them from Dr Williams.

There have to be protocols and conventions by which we recognise each other as churches
Dr Rowan Williams

He said: "Unless we do have something about which we consent, which we trust to resolve some of our differences, we shall be flying further apart. "

Dr Williams insisted that it was unrealistic to expect the Communion to survive simply by ignoring widening differences over issues such as sexuality.

He said: "There have to be protocols and conventions by which we recognise each other as churches, and by which we understand and manage exchanges between us."

But the Anglican tradition of autonomy will make it hard for any "Communion-saving" agreement to be reached.

The 38 churches that make up the Communion were largely founded by Anglican missionaries from Britain and North America, but no legally binding rules of membership were established.

Once the countries in which they took root became independent and the Church of England stopped sending bishops out to take charge of them, these Anglican Churches assumed full autonomy.

They guard this status closely, and none more so than the liberal Churches of the United States and Canada.

Plenty of Canadians and Americans fear that a binding agreement would curtail their "progressive" policies, their wish to stay in touch with fast-developing societies. It could stand in the way of their aim of making the Church more "inclusive" of actively homosexual people.

It seems quite likely that the Episcopal Church, in America, will before long ordain another gay bishop. The Americans will be reluctant to sign anything that stays their hand.

It will be impossible to force any of the autonomous Anglican churches to sign such a document, but those who refuse to do so might find their membership in the Communion diluted.

The process could eventually produce some sort of looser federation of Anglican churches, with some not so much expelled as in an outer orbit.

It would be one way for the Communion to survive the century or so that might be needed for minds on one or both sides to change.


Cardinal Ivan Dias
Cardinal Ivan Dias spoke on the issue of converting non-Christians

The media aren't allowed into many of the events taking place under the auspices of the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion's once-a-decade meeting taking place in Canterbury.

At daily news conferences mild-mannered archbishops have encountered hostility from correspondents irritated at being banned even from the early morning service of Holy Communion. They have scarcely been mollified by the explanation that the exclusion is for "security reasons".

However, the media have been welcomed to the blue, twin-peaked, big top - visible on the hilltop University of Kent campus from miles around - for a number of evening seminars.

Perhaps, given the lack of access to debates about evangelism and "Anglican identity" taking place in the groups of 40 to which discussions are limited, it's not surprising that the most recent seminar was carefully scrutinised for all-too-elusive signs of "news".

The speaker was Cardinal Ivan Dias, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, and a senior member of the Roman Catholic Church's Vatican staff. His address, to any of the 650 bishops and their spouses who wanted to attend, was the second on the subject of spreading the message of Christianity throughout the world and seeking to convert non-Christians.

This has recently become a much hotter topic within the Church of England.

Traditionalists are seeking to add the duty to convert non-Christians to the issue of homosexuality as a defining standard of Anglicanism. They suspect that liberal Anglicans - the same ones who read the Bible as offering a more sympathetic message to homosexual people - regard other religions as having an "equally valid" path to salvation as Christianity.

The debate over sexuality is now seem by both sides in the Communion as a defining one, a struggle for the soul of the Church

One liberal theologian at the conference told me that he regarded Jesus as uniquely the son of God. But he said "have other religions encountered God working on earth? Yes. Has God done something salvific (opening the way to ultimate "salvation") with them? Yes.

Anyway, all this meant close attention for Cardinal Dias' intriguing analogy between certain trends in Christianity and the deadly brain diseases Alzheimer's and Parkinson's (the latter of which notoriously led to Pope John Paul II's death in 2005).

Cardinal Dias was highlighting the need for Christians to stick together to cope with the "moral confusion" of a world in which people made up their own values to suit the moment and in which Christian values were being driven from the public arena.

He said the "thrust for evangelisation...animates both the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church".

However, warned the Cardinal, "when diversity degenerated into division", it compromised the effort to spread the message.

"Much is spoken today of diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's," he said.

Sexuality debate

"By analogy, their symptoms can, at times, be found even in our own Christian communities. For example when we live myopically in the fleeting present, oblivious to our past heritage and apostolic traditions, we could well be suffering from spiritual Alzheimer's.

"And when we behave in a disorderly manner, going whimsically on our own way without any coordination with the head or the other members of our community, it could be ecclesial (churchlike) Parkinson's."

To a Communion in which diversity has, with dramatic results, degenerated into division, it sounded like a pointed rebuke. If it was, it seemed to apply to both liberals and their drive to reform the Anglican view of sexuality - and to traditionalists, who held a rival conference in Jerusalem, sought to bypass the Archbishop of Canterbury as head of the Communion, and largely boycotted the meeting in Canterbury.

The debate over sexuality is now seen by both sides in the Communion as a defining one, a struggle for the soul of the Church. It may not look pretty from Rome, but neither side seems likely to concede in order to optimise evangelism, let alone for the sake of appearances.


Rowan Williams
Rowan Williams was speaking at the Lambeth Conference

Rowan Williams deplores the absence from the Lambeth Conference of the approximately 230 Anglican bishops who rejected their invitations.

Although several bishops have defied the instructions of archbishops in countries such as Kenya, and turned up in Canterbury for the once-a-decade meeting of all the Anglican Communion's bishops, the boycott looms over the conference.

Dr Williams acknowledged that the boycott raised the question of whether the conference could legitimately speak for the whole communion, but he insisted that if traditionalists had wanted their voices heard they should have attended.

"What is my message - we're sorry you're not here", he said. "The great pity is that to have those voices would have been a healing and helpful thing."

So what was the reason for turning down the hottest ticket in the Anglican world?

What counts for me as wrong is any relationship outside a covenant of mutual love and support

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

Traditionalists objected to the presence in Canterbury of American bishops who helped ordain the openly gay bishop Gene Robinson in 2003.

They point out that the Lambeth Conference itself ruled active homosexuality to be incompatible with the teaching of the Bible when it last met 10 years ago - reason enough they argue for those taking part in the ordination of an openly gay bishop to be excluded.

But Dr Williams said the American bishops had earned their invitations through contrition.

Some individually expressed regret for the action widely blamed for prompting the widening rift over homosexuality in the Communion.

"Corporately the (American) House of Bishops asked for forgiveness last year," said Dr Williams, "and 50% of the provinces (individual autonomous national Anglican Churches) or a bit more said that's probably all right."

Gene Robinson, the Anglican Communion's first openly gay bishop, is conspicuously unrepentant.

On the contrary he is determined that other Anglican bishops should not, as he put it, meet without a reminder of his presence.

'Worldwide fellowship'

Dr Williams said Gene Robinson didn't get an invitation to the conference because he remained so controversial in the Communion.

"The bishops represent not only their dioceses but also the worldwide fellowship… and that's the rationale."

Despite not getting an invitation, Bishop Robinson has become a familiar sight on the campus of Kent University, making the most of plentiful chance meetings with other bishops to press his case for a radical re-thinking of the Communion's official view of active homosexuality as against biblical teaching.

Dr Williams was asked what he would regard as wrong in sexual relations, a somewhat disingenuous question to which everyone in the room thought they already knew the answer.

Dr Williams is well known for taking a liberal view of homosexuality, but adopting the more conservative majority policy as the Church's leader.

"What counts for me as wrong is any relationship outside a covenant of mutual love and support," he said enigmatically.

Then, deferring to Anglican orthodoxy: "I don't think that sex outside marriage is as God purposes it.

"In the question of same-sex relationships the Lambeth Conference has made its views clear and that is the position I hold as archbishop."


Bishop Gene Robinson
Gay US bishop Gene Robinson is not on the guest list
The Lambeth Conference has for more than a century knitted together a disparate Church scattered across the world.

Rarely can the Anglican Communion have been in so much need of healing, and rarely can its once-a-decade summit of bishops in Canterbury have presented so little prospect of providing it.

The Communion has been in crisis since the liberal Episcopal Church in the United States ordained Gene Robinson - an openly gay priest - as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

The rift in the Communion has grown steadily wider, and seems increasingly likely to be permanent.

Rival council

But the 2008 Lambeth Conference, where discussion might have resulted in consensus, was blighted before it began.

Traditionalist Anglicans - angry with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for inviting American bishops who helped ordain Gene Robinson - held their own rival conference in Jerusalem.

Most of them - a group constituting about a quarter of Anglican bishops - are boycotting Lambeth.

The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans launched in Jerusalem last month also said it was abandoning the traditional view of attendance at the Lambeth Conference as a symbol of membership of the Communion.

Worse still for Dr Williams, the group said it no longer regarded him as the leader of the Communion, and it appointed its own rival council of archbishops.

Their chief complaint against Dr Williams has been that he has done too little to discipline the American Church for ordaining Bishop Robinson, or the Canadian Church for allowing same-sex relationships to be blessed in church services.

They wanted the conference to exclude the Americans and to come to binding decisions about the limits of acceptable behaviour.

Instead the conference seems intent on avoiding difficult debate. After bishops have arrived in Canterbury - some to be greeted in the Cathedral Close by Dr and Mrs Williams - they will go immediately on retreat, spending the next three days sequestered in the cathedral.

Each day of the three-week conference will begin with Bible study, before groups limited to 40 hold discussions which will carefully skirt the contentious issue facing the Communion.

Only at the very end - after a two-week "cooling-off period" - will they talk about sexuality, and even then there will be no vote, and no resolution.

Collision course

The organisers clearly believe it is one of those situations where less is more. But traditionalists believe the conference cutting its losses and simply avoiding deeper disagreement represents a lost opportunity.

One of them contrasted Lambeth 2008 with the last conference 10 years ago. He suggested that there were preliminary meetings and a suitcase full of documents to read in 1998, but this time almost nothing.

Some traditionalist bishops have reflected on the old story of the tent, and whether it might have been better to have had Bishop Robinson safely inside it

Lambeth 1998 did produce a decision - the resolution 1.10. It declared active homosexuality to be incompatible with the teaching of the Bible.

One result was to galvanise conservative evangelicals. In a tradition that had been dominated by a live-and-let-live approach to sexuality, suddenly a definite orthodoxy had been created.

Some might say that family gatherings do best to leave some awkward issues undiscussed, and that Lambeth 1.10 is what can happen when that advice is ignored.

It was a "ruling" that placed traditionalists on a collision course with the North American churches and led them into uncompromising opposition to what they regard as a liberal campaign to change the character and beliefs of the Church.

However this year's emphasis on listening inside the Conference won't stop people talking outside it.

A calendar of "fringe events" is already filling up, and a colourful cast are ready to enact the drama.

Chief among them is Bishop Gene Robinson himself. Left off the guest list, he's in Canterbury anyway, and will be at the "gay picnic" scheduled for Sunday.

Some traditionalist bishops have reflected on the old story of the tent, and whether it might have been better to have had Bishop Robinson safely inside it.

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