It’s meant to be a gathering place, a time for more than 800 Anglican bishops from around the world to meet and greet and strengthen the bonds of affection.
That’s how the Rev. Richard Miller, rector at Christ the King Episcopal Church in Huntington, described the goal of the Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade meeting of leaders from the Church of England.
The conference allows bishops who might otherwise never meet to shake hands and bring the worldwide church together, Miller said. This year, however, some see less unity and more divisiveness at the conference: About 250 bishops boycotted Lambeth in response to the decision by the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the leader of the Anglican Church, to invite American bishops to the conference. In 2003, the Archdiocese of New Hampshire installed Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as its bishop, and some leaders from conservative dioceses – especially those in Africa – want to see the church take a stand against the ordination of openly gay men and women.
The Rev. Tom Hansen, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Wayne, called the archbishop’s decision to exclude Robinson “sad.”
“If there is an issue or any kind of a situation where there is conflict or difference of opinion, the best thing to do is to bring people together and to discuss those things in the open,” he said. “That’s how you gain understanding.”
The Rev. Edward Little II, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana in South Bend, of which Fort Wayne is a part, didn’t consider boycotting the Lambeth Conference, said the Rev. Canon SuzeAnne Silla, canon to the ordinary. Little is at the conference.
Threats of a split
Despite some conservative bishops’ call for a schism, some local leaders said they are not concerned about the threat of one. Hansen doesn’t think the church will split. Regardless of personal beliefs, members of the Anglican Church share the same basic tenets of faith, he said. Though opinions on various issues differ, those are different from statements of faith, which are included in various Episcopal creeds and beliefs shared across the church, Hansen said.
Miller had similar thoughts about a schism.
“I would see that as tragic,” he said, “but I don’t know that it will happen. If you know much about the history of Anglicanism, we’re always in tension about something. It’s built into the nature of the way we approach theology.”
This tension has been present since the church’s inception. The Church of England officially split from Rome when the Vatican refused to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He divorced her anyway, and the Catholic Church excommunicated the king. He had been in contention with the church long before the divorce, but the series of events served as the catalyst to the split from Rome, according to The Anglican Domain, a Web site meant to be a global resource and produced by the Society of Archbishop Justus. Henry started the new Anglican Church, which was given its formal structure during Elizabeth I’s reign in 1562.
Even the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 faced controversy, when there was much chatter centered on the excommunication of Bishop Colenso for heresy – he had unorthodox views of the Old Testament, according to the archbishop of Canterbury’s Web site.
No overall doctrine
The Church of England is autonomous, which means each church governs itself instead of reporting to a higher authority. Though the archbishop is the leader of the church, he doesn’t have ultimate say-so – he’s less of a pope and more of a gatherer, Silla said.
Being autonomous, the church does not have a doctrinal statement, as do a number of Protestant churches, Miller said. If the church creates one – there are some rough drafts in the process, he said – it would be the first time the church had a set of beliefs and norms of behavior to which members should subscribe. Miller doesn’t think this covenant will address homosexuality straight-out, though he suspects it might reiterate that “candidates for ordination are expected to lead their lives in accordance with the principles of Christian living.”
According to the (London) Telegraph, however, Williams has commissioned a paper expected to create the first conference clash; it would call to ban future consecrations of gay clergy. Until an agreement is reached, the paper asked American and Canadian churches to keep from consecrating any more gay or lesbian bishops. Liberal bishops are expected to fight this proposed change, according to the Telegraph, and churches in Africa would be asked to stop intervening in other churches’ affairs; dioceses in Nigeria and Uganda have taken a handful of American churches, unhappy with the Episcopal Church, under their guidance.
But the conference is about much more than the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, and Hansen said other topics have been downplayed by the secular media. For example, much of the conference is Bible study, meant to create a fellowship among the bishops. This year, conference members have discussed myriad issues, including the environment, global economics and the interplay between evangelism and social justice, Hansen said.
Despite Lambeth’s goals of unity, one group of bishops has already started to distance itself from the rest of the church; theologically conservative Anglicans met in June in Jerusalem at the Global Anglican Future Conference, meant as an alternative to Lambeth.
Sunday is the last day of the conference. Bishops won’t meet together for such fellowship for 10 years. At its conclusion, Hansen hopes for an “openness and appreciation of difference,” he said.
“We embrace diversity,” Hansen said. “I think if Lambeth could become an expression of the church’s embracing diversity, (then) that could have a powerful healing effect. Regardless of the issues that swirl around us, we all come together around the same table. It brings us back to basic tenets of our faith.”
From Decade summit highlights Anglican rift | The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Indiana