Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lambeth: Tensions take center stage as conference moves to tea with the Queen

George Conger reports:

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s efforts to steer the Anglican Communion away from the theological and political shoals appears to have been for naught, as the 14th Lambeth Conference began to founder on its second business day.

While the three day retreat led by Dr. Williams was universally applauded by bishops from across the geographic and theological spectrum, once the bishops were loosed upon each other the tensions that have plagued the Communion stepped back into center stage.

On July 22, the Archbishop of the Sudan released a statement calling for the Episcopal Church of the United States to repent, and to cease “with immediate effect” its advocacy of gay bishops and blessings.

Rebuffed by conference organizers in releasing his message, Dr. Daniel Deng, Archbishop of Juba and Primate of the Sudan, went round them and held an impromptu press conference in the media room, and issued a call for Gene Robinson to step aside to save the Communion.

If [Gene Robinson] were a real Christian he would resign” Archbishop Deng said on July 22, as the Episcopal Church’s media handlers looked on in shock. A number of American bishops were taken aback by the Sudanese statement, as Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and a number of her colleagues spent the days before the opening of Lambeth with the Sudanese bishops in Salisbury.

The extended encounter with the American bishops did not have the intended effect, however, as it prompted the Sudanese Archbishop, with the full support of his bishops, to issue the call for repentance.

The small group format of the conference, called Indaba groups, has so far discouraged collective action, and left many bishops unaware of what was happening in the wider conference. However, a meeting of over 150 Global South bishops during the free period on Tuesday afternoon, brought the Robinson issue back to the center.

“I have nothing to talk” to Gene Robinson about, Dr. Deng said. “First he must confess and then is the time to talk” about the divisions within the Communion, the Sudanese leader said.

The Indaba group structure of the conference has prompted mixed reviews. South African Archbishop Thabo Makgoba-one of the conference organizers—conceded the division of the bishops into groups of 40 to discuss specific issues in the space of two hours did not appear to allow for enough time for a full airing of views. “Mathematically, it won’t make a lot of sense,” he said. However, “the whole conference is an indaba.”

“Indaba starts with walk from your room,” and continues with all of the events of the day. “It is part and parcel of the whole conversation,” he explained. Bishop Nathan Baxter of Central Pennsylvania lauded the small group encounters saying that “bishops listening together” had set a respectful tone for the gathering, and “says a lot about the climate” at Lambeth.

Americans have been “well received” he said. While “not everyone agrees” with each other, we have been able to “talk to one another, not about one another,” Bishop Baxter said.

While fostering personal relations, the indaba project has so far not responded to the wider issues at play. Dr Deng said “until now I cannot judge” the worth of the indaba process, “but until now I think they are not doing” the job.

Central Florida Bishop John W. Howe, one of the senior American evangelical bishops told his clergy “there seems to be an incipient revolt stirring among us. Many of the Africans are saying, ‘This isn’t indaba at all! First of all, we are not a village, and we don’t know each other. And secondly, we are not attempting to solve a problem; we are talking in small groups about minor issues of little consequence’.”

The Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu is reported to have said, Bishop Howe wrote, “If indaba is such a great idea, why is Africa in such a mess?”

“There seems to be the beginning of some rumbling that we need to get to a decision-making moment in the life of the Conference,” Bishop Howe wrote on July 22.

The administration of the conference appears to be unraveling as well, as queries about who actually is in charge of Lambeth—who welds authority over the day to day operations—remain unanswered.

Conference spokesman have confirmed Lambeth is over £1 million in debt, and an emergency meeting of the conference organizers and the Church Commissioners has been set for early August to deal with the shortfall. However, the Church Commissioner’s charter prevents them for bailing out the conference, and the bailiffs may soon be at the door of the Old Palace in Canterbury, if no other sources of cash are found to cover the deficits.

Over 40 percent of the bishops attending Lambeth are on “scholarship” from the Conference. With a quarter of the bishops absent and fundraising at a standstill, the financial picture appears grim, one insider told CEN.

The bishops’ communications strategy has also misfired, with relations with the church press at a new low. The names of the bishops attending Lambeth would not be revealed as this was a secret. The reason for the secrecy was a secret, though explanations of privacy concerns and security concerns were offered.

The Church of England’s policy of an open invitation to Communion for baptized Christians has been rescinded for the duration of the Conference, as the press has been banned from attending worship services, as the presence of non-bishops at worship would be a distraction and a nuisance, conference organizers said.

Read the rest here.

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