Episcopal bishop downplays discord at upcoming Anglican meeting

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said May 20 that she does not expect up-or-down votes on the role of gays and lesbians in the church at a meeting of global Anglican leaders in England this summer.

The Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade gathering of bishops from the 38 provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion, will instead be an opportunity for bishops to work out differences in closed-door discussion groups, according to organizers.

"I don't expect legislation at Lambeth. That's not why we're going," Jefferts Schori told reporters. "It's a global conversation. ... It's not going to make a final decision about anything."

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, has drawn up the guest list and guided the design for the meeting, to be held July 16-Aug. 3 in Canterbury, England.

The new informal structure contrasts with the last meeting, in 1998, when conservatives succeeded in pushing through a nonbinding resolution that declared homosexuality "incompatible with Scripture" and condemned gay marriage.

Anglicans, who now live in 164 countries, have held the decennial meetings since the 1860s, according to Episcopal leaders. As the church spreads, however, it can be difficult to find theological unity among the diverse provinces.

In response to tensions in the 77 million-member communion, which is bitterly divided over homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture, Williams has dispensed with tradition and authorized a new type of Lambeth Conference.

"Its aim is not to negotiate a formula that will keep everyone happy but to go to the heart of an issue and find what the true challenges are before seeking God's way forward," Williams said in a May 12 letter to bishops around the world.

Gone are parliamentary procedure and arm-twisting by bishops to forge binding resolutions. In are "ndaba" groups, taken from a Zulu word meaning "purposeful conversation," said the Rev. Ian Douglas, a member of the international committee that designed the conference.

"This is a bold, new, exciting thing that we are walking into together," said Douglas, who teaches at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

However, the new design may not please conservative Anglicans, who want to hold the Episcopal Church to account for electing an openly gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire, and allowing same-sex blessings in some parishes.

Robinson was not invited to this year's conference, a snub that irked many U.S. bishops, including Jefferts Schori. Robinson has said that he will still travel to England and participate in events surrounding the conference.

Already, several conservative bishops from regions where Anglicanism is rapidly growing, particularly Africa and other provinces in the "Global South," have declined invitations to attend Lambeth.

Nearly 300 bishops have registered for an alternative event, dubbed the Global Anglican Future Conference, in Jerusalem June 22-29.

Archbishop Gregory Venables of the Argentina-based Province of the Southern Cone has said he will attend both Lambeth and GAFCON. The alternative conference will be "an opportunity to come together around the central and unchanging tenets of the central and unchanging historic Anglican faith," he said.

Jefferts Schori said Bishop Robert O'Neill of Colorado will attend GAFCON on behalf of the U.S. church.

The presiding bishop also said she looks forward to the newly designed Lambeth Conference.

"The reality is that parliamentary procedure, including the way it's practiced in this country, leads generally to winners and losers," Jefferts Schori said. "When we meet face to face, we have far more opportunities to meet each other as complex human beings rather than as single-issue positions."

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