In a whipping wind that caught the tail of his golden-threaded miter, Archbishop Williams, as he entered the cathedral, was crossing a threshold in Anglican history. From a stone seat close by the spot where a 12th-century archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, was murdered by Norman knights seeking to end the archbishop’s defiance of King Henry II, Archbishop Williams led a Eucharist marking the formal opening of a gathering that many in the church have described as a make-or-break moment.
The gathering, the Lambeth Conference, takes place once every 10 years. This year’s meeting, centered on two weeks of debate that begin Monday, is taking place only a few weeks after a group of bishops from the church’s traditionalist and evangelical wings, meeting in Jerusalem, founded a new group, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, that many in the church regard as posing the gravest threat of a schism in the worldwide Anglican Communion since Anglicanism was born in King Henry VIII’s 16th-century break with Rome.
The group in Jerusalem claimed to have the allegiance of 300 Anglican bishops and archbishops, many from Africa, and vowed to step up its battle with church liberals, especially in the United States, over the issue of gay priests that has nearly paralyzed the Communion in recent years. Equally threatening to the continued existence of a unified Communion, the new group challenged the authority of the archbishop of Canterbury to speak for Anglicans worldwide, and followed up the Jerusalem gathering by effectively boycotting the Lambeth meeting.At the procession on Sunday, the extent of the boycott was clear, with at least 220 absentees among the 880 bishops and archbishops invited.
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