The deep fractures in the 80-million-strong Anglican church were laid bare Wednesday as the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams opened a once-a-decade summit with a quarter of bishops boycotting the event because of a festering row over sexuality and liberal interpretation of Scripture.
Some 230 of 880 Anglican bishops, most of them from Africa and conservative American and Australian parishes are cold-shouldering the Lambeth Conference because they disagree fundamentally with Archbishop Williams and other liberal church leaders on the place of homosexuals in the life and ministry of the church.
Many of the boycotters have already launched a breakaway movement that wants to return to what they see as scriptural orthodoxy. They have been agitating for decisive action against gay clergy ever since Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, was consecrated as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
Williams decided not to invite Bishop Robinson to the 2-1/2-week conference – but that was not enough to appease conservatives, who have openly broken with the US church leaders who consecrated Robinson.
"One reason why many of these people are not going to the Lambeth Conference is that they feel it would be hypocrisy to spend three weeks in fellowship and prayer and Bible study with those who have consecrated a homosexual as a bishop," says Canon Chris Sugden, a supporter of the traditionalist movement.
"It's the first time that the Lambeth has had a boycott," adds Theo Hobson, an author and theologian. "The aim of this year's conference is to avoid divisive issues, but that's why the Evangelicals have boycotted because they think there's a need for clarity at the moment to determine orthodoxy."
'Living through very difficult times'
In a welcome message, Williams, who has struggled to reconcile the irreconcilable over the past five years, acknowledged that the communion "is living through very difficult times, and we are bound to be aware of the divisions and conflicts that have hurt us all in recent years."
With 77 million members in 164 countries, the Anglicans claim to be the third-largest Christian denomination. They have always been the broadest of churches, and as such have been divided on a wide range of issues, from Darwinism to slavery, polygamy to scriptural interpretation and ecclesiastical rites. Lambeth conferences have habitually had to accommodate contradictory viewpoints.
But homosexuality has emerged as the most divisive issue of all, ever since the last Lambeth Conference in 1998 issued a resolution that failed to clear the matter up.
Conservatives argue it is not a question of homosexuality but of Scripture. They are alarmed at modern interpretation of the Bible. "I believe it [homosexuality] is against the Scripture because it is very clear in the Bible that it is not what the Bible teaches," says Lawrence Dena, a Kenyan bishop boycotting Lambeth.
But conservatives are not the only ones claiming that Scripture is on their side. Liberals argue that Jesus Christ said not one word about homosexuality, and that any dogma that denounces love between two people starts to look distinctly unchristian. "You've got all these people talking about gays and lesbians being an abomination before God. Does that make you want to run out and go to an Anglican church and sing God's praises?" Robinson said in an interview earlier this week.
But as if to underscore the furious antagonism between the two camps, the bishop was heckled on Sunday as he addressed a London congregation by a young man who told him: "Go back to your church and repent."
The Anglican church has started to unravel under the strain of two such diametrically opposed positions. Some conservative US parishes have seceded from local diocesan oversight and joined with African provinces that better reflect their traditional outlook. African archbishops have declared themselves no longer "in communion" with their liberal US counterparts, and one, Peter Akinola of Nigeria, has accused Williams of committing apostasy and leading the church into crisis.
Last month at a Jerusalem conference, traditionalists launched a splinter group called the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.
Lambeth will avoid firm decisions
To avoid antagonism breaking out into the open, this year's Lambeth Conference will avoid any firm resolutions that could be contentious. Instead, bishops will meet in small groups to discuss the broadest range of issues, from social justice to climate change, the multifaith world and, yes, human sexuality, without taking a firm stance.
Jim Rosenthal, an Anglican spokesman at the conference, says the format would be based on a Zulu form of meeting called indaba, where small groups gather to discuss important issues without reaching concrete decisions. "It's an excellent way for people with diverse backgrounds and languages to get together," he says.
He added that bishops would not be deflected by the boycott. "Although there are differences which no one denies over many matters, not just sexuality, the reality is that the 80 percent turnout shows we find enormous benefit in being in communion."
A secondary division chipping away at the Anglicans involves the consecration of women bishops. This is more of a problem for the English "mothership" (known as the Church of England), which has signaled that it will press ahead with legislation to introduce women bishops, despite the objections of hundreds of clergymen.
"This is something that is troubling the Church of England, though it's less of a fight in the wider Anglican communion," says Giles Fraser, a London vicar, who notes that about 20 women bishops will attend Lambeth. "The issue of homosexuality by comparison is a bare-knuckle brawl."
Few analysts expect an Anglican reconciliation anytime soon. "The church is already fragmented," says Mr. Hobson. "The Evangelicals don't really believe in the authority of a liberal archbishop and leadership. It's hard to see how it could reunite."
Mr. Fraser adds that the only way of keeping the Anglicans together "is to have a greater degree of subsidiarity so that each province is able to make theological decisions for [itself]."