The Lambeth conference, one of the most important symbols of Anglican unity, takes place every 10 years in Canterbury. But the 2008 summit, which finished two weeks ago, was held amid an atmosphere of boycotts and recrimination over the 230 bishops who stayed away Â- and the one who was never invited.
It was seen as a crucial test of Rowan Williams’s leadership and an indication of whether the worldwide Anglican family could stay together in spite of irreconcilable differences between conservatives and liberals over specific issues. So after hours of Bible study, daily indabas and a deficit of nearly Â£2-million, what is the outcome?
What about schism?
The word is rarely used to describe the obvious divisions between ideologically opposed churches. Bishops prefer to say ‘riftâ€, ‘walking apartâ€ or ‘woundâ€ to describe the result of the 2003 consecration of the gay US bishop Gene Robinson (who was a constant presence on the fringes of the conference despite not being invited), subsequent interventions by African churches in the US and the launch of the Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon) by an international network of traditionalists in Jerusalem last June.
From the start, the Archbishop of Canterbury attempted to emphasise the common bonds of Christianity shared by bishops. He did this by whisking them away on a three-day spiritual retreat, leading them in prayer and reflection. He followed this by daily Bible studies and group discussions on shared values — such as mission and ecumenism — that preceded hotly anticipated forums on homosexuality in which bishops from both ends of the spectrum could air their grievances.
By removing politics and creating a safe, some would say sanitised, agenda he ensured energies and thoughts were directed to areas where Anglican churches are best placed to make the greatest impact: poverty, global harmony, faith, prayer and charity. Contentious issues did not officially arise until the second week of the conference.
Contributions at set hearings were timed and listened to in a respectful way. The previous Lambeth conference, in 1998, saw bishops booed and hissed when making speeches. This time, there were no resolutions and no votes. In this respect, Williams could be said to have succeeded in neutralising acrimony, reminding the bishops of their calling and showing them the bigger Anglican picture.
What has been achieved?
A formal schism has been avoided and several initiatives have been proposed to resolve present crises and pre-empt future ones. These suggestions include a pastoral forum to discipline problem churches, an Anglican Communion Faith and Order Commission to enforce doctrine, a mini-Lambeth to meet between the 10-yearly conferences and an Anglican covenant to provide guidance and mediation in difficult situations.
Williams has pinned his hopes on the covenant. However, some bishops have grumbled that the 17day summit has been an expensive waste of time.
What about Gafcon?
The absence of 230 bishops was keenly felt. The Lambeth delegates said their experience was ‘diminishedâ€ by the boycott and pledged their commitment to building bridges with the boycotters.
Gafcon has other ideas. Last week the Archbishop of Uganda and one of the missing bishops, Henry Luke Orombi, also from Uganda, launched a salvo at the hitherto peaceful proceedings by accusing Williams of betrayal.
More damagingly, they said he was a lone figure, appointed by a secular government and a remnant of British colonialism.
Where does the church now stand on homosexuality?
Williams insists that the official position remains unchanged: homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture. There have been calls from the Windsor continuation group, a body set up to analyse and defuse tensions on this issue, for provinces to cease blessing same-sex unions and ordaining partnered gay clergy. Neither Williams, nor any other Anglican office or individual, however, has the power to discipline rebel churches.
What are the bishops saying?
In the fourth and final reflections document — a 37-page anthology of thoughts published last weekend — they said they had gained a ‘real depth of fellowshipâ€ and were moved to tears by the experiences of other bishops. Lambeth ‘virginsâ€ understood what ‘a precious thingâ€ it was to be an Anglican and to have a communion. Those who were there also acknowledged they were an international community and would be foolish to let such a gift fall apart. —