By Jim Naughton
The sight of rank after rank of bishops processing out of the center doors of Canterbury’s ancient cathedral is simultaneously moving and absurd. Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, Indians, Australians, Americans—even Englishmen—rolled in red and white-clad pairs out of the shadowed portal and into the early afternoon sunshine to the sounds of choir, organ, and several dozen clattering cameras.
After the first hundred rochet and chimere-wearing rows, there was a momentary break in the procession, and the press suspected for a moment, that it was time to move on. But then, out of the dim cathedral interior came a verger in purple and gray, followed by more bishops, and more bishops. It is regrettable that some 200 bishops have chosen to boycott the conference, but if all 880 had shown up, we might still be there.
The English and Asian press were keen for a picture of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, but she was talking with a fellow primate as they came through the door, and wouldn’t turn away from the conversation no matter how frequently they called her name. Then a sudden breeze swept the other primate’s biretta off of his head and directly toward the photographers. Both bishops bolted, laughing, to retrieve it. Then, their conversation interrupted, they posed with several of their colleagues, proving that God answers photographers’ prayers.
I didn’t get a ticket to the opening Eucharist—in fact, I didn’t try, but some friends in the press cribbed some quotes for me from the sermon [video here] by Bishop Duleep de Chickera of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Here is what struck me as the key quote,
“There is space equally for everyone and anyone regardless of color, gender, ability or sexual orientation. If we attempt some game of uprooting the unrighteous, then my sisters and brothers, none of us will remain.”
One bishop suggested a certain “incongruity” between word and action. Even the music spoke of inclusion. The refrain of the Communion Hymn, Let Us Build a House Where Love Can Dwell, began: “All are welcome; all are welcome; all are welcome…”
Leaving aside the fact that admission to the Eucharist required a ticket, Bishop Gene Robinson was obviously unwelcome. He isn’t even being allowed to attend a meeting of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops being held during the conference.
During the opening press conference George Conger of the Church of England Newspaper asked an extremely perceptive question about Robinson’s exclusion. The Archbishop of Canterbury, he noted, had described the ecumenical visitors to Canterbury as “full participants” in the Lambeth Conference whose differing theologies would challenge the bishops and deepen their conversations. Given that the Salvation Army does not baptize, and the Armenian church holds what Anglicans might consider an unorthodox understanding of the nature of Christ, does Bishop Robinson’s exclusion signal that the issue of homosexuality is more theologically significant than sacramental and Christological differences?
Archbishop Phillip Aspinall of Australia, the conference’s chief spokesman, had no real answer. He was joined on the dais at the opening press conference by two members of the Lambeth Conference Design Team, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of South Africa and Professor Ian Douglas of Episcopal Divinity School.
Aspinall was at pains to dispel the notion that the conference was designed to sweep differences among members of the Communion under the carpet. Rather, he said, participants would have more opportunities to discuss the issues confronting the Communion in more productive settings than they had at the resolution-drive Lambeth Conference of 1998.
Citing the “Manichean” press coverage preceding the event, John Burns of The New York Times asked Aspinall whether the purpose of the conference was to avert a schism. Aspinall said that the Lambeth Conference always confronted whatever issues were before the Communion whenever it was held, and that this conference was no different.
He said that he discerned “an overwhelming commitment to the life of the Communion among those who are here.”
The Eucharist and press conference ran late, and I arrived at the Integrity/Changing Attitude Eucharist on the village green near St. Stephen’s Church just as the Rev. Colin Coward began the Eucharistic prayer. Some 160 worshipers were arrayed on the grass before an elevated stage. The Cathedral’s towers served as a backdrop. Bishop Robinson and his partner Mark Andrew were in the crowd, as were 32 other bishops. I missed the Rev. Susan Russell’s sermon, but I am sure it will be on her blog, soon. I think more people, and certainly more bishops would have made it to Integrity’s Eucharist if the opening Eucharist had not run late. A number of bishops with special roles in the conference had to attend briefings after the Eucharist, and couldn’t get to the green on time.
While talking to the press on the green I learned that Bishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone and some others had not taken communion at the Eucharist. This strikes me as very poor theology. I’d take the Eucharist with a congregation full of murderers, not as an endorsement of their worth, but as an acknowledgment of my need. To willfully reject an opportunity to receive the body and blood of Christ because you have theological disagreements with other members of the congregation seems an act of incredible spiritual pride. In pursuing the strategy, Venables asserts his right to pass judgment on the guest list for the Lord’s Supper, a meal at which he himself is a guest.
As I don’t think he is a theological ignoramus, I suspect he did it to have something to say to the BBC. I am all in favor of him pursuing a strategy that focuses attention on his own bad behavior.
The Integrity/CA Eucharist was covered by two crews from the BBC—both of whom interviewed Bishop Bruce Caldwell of Wyoming—and several reporters from the Times of London. John Burns also conducted a few interviews, but I don’t know whether he is writing for tomorrow or not.
It’s 6:30 here in Canterbury and time to move on to our new accommodations, a farm house 25 minutes east of the city where we will stay for the rest of the conference. Tomorrow the Archbishop of Canterbury will brief the media at 1:30; BBC2 will air a documentary on the conflict in the Communion (that includes an interview with Bishop John Bryson Chane) at 7 p. m., I think, and Brian McLaren, internationally know evangelist, and friend of the Diocese of Washington, will give the evening plenary address.
I hope to return to a more impressionistic, less journalistic style tomorrow, but today seemed to call for a quasi-comprehensive sort of approach.
The official press release about Archbishop Rowan Williams opening remarks to the first full plenary session of the Lambeth Conference can be found here. A PDF version of the full address can also be found there. Episcopal Life reports on the worship service here, including these reactions to the sermon by Bishop Duleep de Chickera:
After the service, Bishop Neil Alexander of Atlanta said he was “particularly moved” by de Chickera’s sermon since it “lifted your soul,” however, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh said the inclusion of the chant was “very, very troubling” since it was an “invocation of something other than the God we know.”