This year's gathering occurs amid a rancorous debate over the role of gays and lesbians in the church.
What happens in Canterbury by the time Lambeth concludes Aug. 3 will likely have lasting repercussions for the communion's 38 national churches, including its U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church.
Here are some basic question and answers about this year's Lambeth Conference.
Q: Where does the name "Lambeth" come from?
A: The bishops' meetings were originally held at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury's official London residence. But the conference is too large to be held there now, and will be at the University of Kent in Canterbury.
Q: Why does the conference meet in Canterbury?
A: The Archbishop of Canterbury, currently the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, heads the Church of England, the fount from which the global Anglican Communion springs. The archbishop is also the communion's spiritual leader, therefore, the conference is held in his home diocese.
Q: Where does the Lambeth Conference fit into the life of the Anglican Communion?
A: Lambeth Conference is one of four "instruments of communion" for the world's 77 million Anglicans. The others are the yearly meetings of primates, the senior archbishops who typically lead national churches; the Anglican Consultative Council, an international assembly of lay and ordained Anglicans; and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. Churches are considered part of the Anglican Communion at the the Archbishop of Canterbury's say so.
Q: Who leads the Lambeth Conference?
A: The Archbishop of Canterbury leads Lambeth, with help from a design committee and the secretary general of the Anglican Consultative Council.
Q: Who is invited to attend the Lambeth Conference?
A: Bishops from throughout the Anglican Communion. This year, more than 800 have been invited.
Q: Was anyone not invited?
A: The first openly gay Episcopal bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, was not invited in an effort to sooth lingering outrage over Robinson's 2003 election. Also not invited are the missionary bishops appointed by overseas Anglicans to lead disaffected North American conservatives, such as the Virginia-based Bishop Martyn Minns.
A: Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will lead a delegation of an estimated 135 bishops at Lambeth, who will form nearly one quarter of the 600 bishops gathered.
Q: Does Lambeth have the power to issue laws that are binding on member churches?
A: No. Lambeth resolutions have important moral authority but each national church writes and executes its own laws.
Q: If Lambeth can't enact binding legislation, what's the point of having it?
A: The conference is partly spiritual and personal. Bishops are able to connect with Anglicans from across the world, and when bishops do pass resolutions and speak with one mind, it carries weight with Anglicans everywhere. Episcopal gay rights groups acknowledge that resolutions passed at Lambeth influence U.S. bishops.
Q: Why are some conservative Anglicans boycotting Lambeth?
A: Some are boycotting because they don't want to sit at the table with the men and women who agreed to consecrate Robinson, or who allow same-sex blessings in their church. Others object to female bishops, such as Jefferts Schori. Still others say there's no point since resolutions passed at Lambeth are toothless.
Q: Episcopalians have come under fire for electing a gay bishop and allowing same-sex unions. Will the U.S. church be disciplined at Lambeth?
A: Probably not. This year's conference has been designed to discourage resolutions of that sort. And with key conservatives boycotting the conference,the Episcopal Church seems safe for now.
Q: Could a majority of bishops at Lambeth vote to kick a member church out of the Anglican Communion?
A: It's possible but extremely unlikely. Williams would have to agree to it, and he has worked hard to hold everyone together.
Q: Is the conference expected to guide future Anglican debates over homosexuality or the authority of the Bible?
A: Yes. But it's up to the national churches to determine how much they want to be guided by Lambeth. At the Lambeth Conference in 1998, the bishops passed a resolution calling homosexual acts "incompatible with Scripture." Five years later, the Episcopal Church elected Robinson, and same-sex blessings have continued.