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Associated Press – July 20, 2008
CANTERBURY, England – The head of the Anglican Communion said the global fellowship faces “one of the most severe challenges” in its history, and told bishops at their once-a-decade Lambeth Conference that they must find solutions beyond schism.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said that the most immediate Anglican need is for “transformed relationships” so their fellowship doesn’t break apart over the Bible and homosexuality.
The communion has been in an uproar since 2003, when the Episcopal Church, the U.S. Anglican body, consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
“We all know that we stand in the middle of one of the most severe challenges to have faced the Anglican family in its history,” he said in a speech Sunday to the 650 bishops at the assembly.
But he said the communion has survived other crises in its centuries of existence, and can overcome these troubles. The 77-million-member communion is a global fellowship of churches that trace their roots to the missionary work of the Church of England. It is the second-largest group of churches in the world, behind Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
“Whatever the popular perception, the options before us are not irreparable schism or forced assimilation,” Williams said. “We need to get beyond the reciprocal impatience that shows itself in the ways in which both liberals and traditionalists are ready – almost eager at times, it appears – to assume that the other is not actually listening to Jesus.”
Williams made the comments as the bishops emerged from days of private prayer.
They held opening public worship Sunday in Canterbury Cathedral, the Anglican mother church, processing into the nave, not grouped by nationality, but mixed together to symbolize their bonds across provinces.
The meeting was designed without any votes or legislation. Instead, bishops will hold daily Bible study and small group discussion before issuing “reflections” on the Anglican future by Aug. 3, when the event ends.
About one-quarter of the invited bishops – theological conservatives mostly from Africa – boycotted the meeting because Williams invited bishops from the U.S. who had consecrated Robinson and included other bishops who also accept gay relationships.
Williams called their absence a “wound.” He barred Robinson and a few other problematic bishops from the conference to ensure broader participation from other church leaders.
Still, Robinson is in Canterbury on the outskirts of the meeting, working with Anglican gay and lesbian advocates and trying to informally meet with Anglican bishops.
Anglicans have long held together divergent views of Scripture and ritual. But those divisions have been widening as Anglican churches in the developing world, where strict Bible interpretation is the norm, have become the biggest and fastest-growing in the communion.
Last month, a group of Anglican conservatives from Africa, Australia and elsewhere formed a new network within the communion that challenges Williams’ authority, but stops short of schism. Some of the network organizers are attending Lambeth, but most are staying away.
Already, many of the network leaders have taken oversight of breakaway conservative parishes in the U.S. and Canada – crossing the historic boundaries of those provinces. They have defended their actions as critical to protecting Anglicans from the “false gospel” of local leaders.
Other religious groups are facing similar divisions over how they should interpret Scripture, and they are closely watching the outcome of the assembly. Several Vatican officials are among the ecumenical participants at Lambeth.
No one expects the Anglicans to resolve their problems by the end of the conference. Organizers instead hope their discussions will help clarify their next steps.
“A Lambeth Conference is not a political meeting about organization or structure alone, but it is a spiritual meeting,” said Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, head of the Anglican Church of Australia. “We must go into this confident that a way has been found to the Father … . We must be confident that that way is there.”

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