Page last updated at 21:20 GMT, Sunday, 20 July 2008 22:20 UK

Will the conference bring communion?

By Nick Higham
BBC News

Bishops congregate at Canterbury Cathedral
One bishop warned "not to try and uproot the unrighteous"

You wonder how Canterbury Cathedral would have coped if all the bishops invited to the Lambeth Conference had actually turned up.

The cathedral holds 2,400 and on Sunday morning it was full - even though more than 200 of the world-wide Anglican's Communion's 880 bishops, along with spouses and assorted aides, are boycotting the event.

Those who did come for the opening service of the conference listened to Bible readings in Korean and French, prayers in Swahili, and music and dance from Melanesia.

It was a shock afterwards to see the dancers, bare-breasted in the case of the men, in white shifts for the women, carrying their instruments, and dressed in their daywear as monks and nuns.

The congregation also heard a sermon from Duleep De Chickera, the bishop of Colombo in Sri Lanka, a country as he said, of five great world religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and cricket.

Bishop De Chickera is an old friend of Archbishop Rowan Williams and he issued what sounded like an implied rebuke to the traditionalist bishops who have chosen to stay away in protest at the Episcopal Church in America's decision to ordain an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as a bishop in 2004.

Weeds and wheat

The Anglican Church should be about inclusiveness, mutual love and respect for everybody
Marie, Cambridge

The Anglican Communion is a "wounded community", he said.

And if its members attempted what he called "this game" of trying to uproot the unrighteous, "none of us will remain."

It was a reference to Christ's parable of the weeds and the wheat in St Matthew's gospel, which was read earlier in the service.

In the parable the landowner tells his slaves not to pull up the weeds that have invaded his crop for fear of uprooting the young wheat as well and destroying both.

But not all the conservatives stayed away.

After the service as hundreds of bishops milled around in the cathedral close, I spoke to two.

Gene Robinson
Gene Robinson attended a nearby gay and lesbian picnic

Keith Ackerman, bishop of Quincy, Illinois, came because, as he put it: "An empty chair can't speak": he thought it important that the conservative view was represented.

He voiced the unease of many traditionalists when he accused liberals, in effect, of trying to rewrite the Bible.

"Why is it that people are determined to change the faith delivered to the saints?"

The conservatives feel the ground shifting beneath them and they find it deeply unsettling.

"The faithful of yesterday have become the dissidents of today," in the words of Archbishop Greg Venables.

He was one of the 200 Anglican bishops and primates who met in Jerusalem a few weeks ago and founded what is, in effect, a breakaway organisation - the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.

Though he came to Canterbury and participated in the service, he was one of several bishops who did not take communion, arguing that he is no longer in communion with many of his colleagues.


Two hours later on the outskirts of Canterbury, the man whose ordination as bishop of New Hampshire helped create the present crisis was at a picnic and open-air service organised by gay and lesbian activists in the Church.

Gene Robinson has explicitly not been invited to the conference itself for fear that his presence would be divisive.

But he was here on the conference fringe, accompanied in a show of solidarity, by many of his fellow North American bishops.

If we can't bridge our own divisions, we have little to offer a suffering world
Rob O'Neill, bishop of Colorado

The priest who presided over the service, Colin Coward, was unambiguous in his response when I put to him the traditionalist argument that the Bible explicitly condemns homosexuality as a sin, and that an avowed sinner should not, could not, be a bishop.

"I just don't believe it; we are all men and women, straight or gay, created by God.

"I have no doubt that lesbians and gays can be called as priests and bishops," he said.

Does all this matter to those outside the Anglican Communion? Yes, many argue.

The communion has 80 million members. United, they are a powerful force for good in the world, fighting to end poverty or condemning oppressive regimes. If they split, that power is much reduced.

As Rob O'Neill, the bishop of Colorado, put it: "We live in a broken and divided world. If we can't bridge our own divisions, we have little to offer a suffering world."

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