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Lambeth Conference structure meant for ’intense engagement,’ planners say


Contrary to the opinion of some observers, a spokesman for the 2008 Lambeth Conference said July 20 that the design of the gathering is not meant to avoid the conflict and differences in the Anglican Communion, but rather to engage them more intensely.

Archbishop Phillip Aspinall of Brisbane, the primate of Australia and principal spokesman for the bishops, told a news briefing after the conference’s opening Eucharist that this conference “will feel a bit different because it is not a debating chamber this time.”

“Some people have taken that to mean that the program has been designed to avoid conflict,” he said. “Now, let me tell you that the chances of avoiding conflict when you get 650 bishops together are pretty minimal and the program designers are well aware of that. What the program designers have tried to do is to engage with the conflict in a quite different way.”

Aspinall also cautioned that this Lambeth meeting will not settle the communion’s conflict and tensions once and for all.

“The last Lambeth didn’t resolve all the differences. The Lambeth before that didn’t resolve all the differences and this one won’t either,” he said. “It’s a journey, moving through, searching for truth, growing together with our ecumenical partners -- that’s the journey of life until the Lord returns, I’m afraid. Once these differences are resolved, God in his generosity will give us new ones to grapple with. That is the human journey.”

During the next two weeks, Bible study groups of eight bishops, which will then gather in collections five to be known as indaba groups, are “meant to facilitate more intense engagement” than that which occurred in previous conferences that featured close to 800 bishops meeting in plenary debating sessions, Aspinall said.

Indaba is a method of engagement, said Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba, primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, who added that it “comes from where I was born” in Makgoa Kloof in South Africa. Indaba is used by the village chief when he or she perceives a problem in the community and calls the villagers together to seek a solution.

“What needs to happen is not to rush to quick solutions. We need to come together to define what is this that is effecting the village,” he said. “We have borrowed that methodology and process for the Lambeth Conference.”

Makgoba said that the entire conference is an exercise in indaba. “The Bible studies, the walk from your room to the Bible studies, the fellowship when you have meals together -- it’s part and parcel of the dialogue and the conversation of wanting to seek who we are and what is God calling us to be at this time,” he said.

He used the example of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well during which a conversation that began as a superficial discussion about drinking water became something more profound. “That is our hope that indaba holds for us,” he said.

The Rev. Ian Douglas, a member of the Lambeth Design Group, told the briefing that the aim of the conference is to equip bishops to be better leaders in God’s mission in the world. During this first week of the conference the bishops will to consider Anglican identity, the role of bishops in evangelism and social justice, ecumenical relations, abuse of power, and issues of sustaining the world in which God carries out God’s mission. The second week is meant to “come within the household of the Anglican Communion and deal with more inter-Anglican issues” such as biblical authority, human sexuality, the proposed Anglican covenant and the continuing processes of the Windsor Report.

While the latter three issues are due to formally come before the indaba groups on July 31, August 1 and August 2, Douglas said it is not as if they are being saved for the last days of the conference. There will be many instances when those issues are addressed in hearings and in a daily series of workshops from which each bishop chooses where to participate each day.

The hearings to which Douglas referred are one on the continuing Windsor Process and three during which a “listening group” will present reflections gathered from the indaba groups that are destined to be turned into a “reflections document” to be released on August 3, the closing day of the conference. The collecting of reflections from the indaba groups and the hearings are meant to be an “open and transparent process rather than put together in a back room and voted on on the final day,” he added.

He also said that the Windsor Continuation Group does not have “a formal report that’s going to be delivered for the bishops to debate.” Rather the group will be “putting forward for discussion what they’ve discerned so far in their work, what might be some possible directions forward, and how do we go from here.”

Aspinall told the briefing that his conversations with bishops have shown him that “there is an overwhelming commitment to the life of the communion from those who are here.” He said he also sensed that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams used the bishops’ two-and-a-half day retreat which ended July 19 to “put us into the right spiritual frame so that we can be listening to God as well as maneuvering politically, you know, in these discussions because the church is more than a political organization.”

After the morning’s opening Eucharist, Atlanta Bishop Neil Alexander said as much.

“People are putting their arms around each other and asking the hard questions about how we move forward from where we are,” he said.

“[U]nlike the 1998 conference, where it does appear that the agenda that was established by [then-]Archbishop Carey was hijacked in unfortunate ways, I think there’s a very strong commitment on the heart of many, many bishops that we do what we came to do and not change agendas in the middle of our conference,” he added.

On the other hand, close to 200 bishops are not attending the conference due to differing opinions on homosexuality, the ordination of women and the authority of Scripture. Some of the bishops who have chosen to attend are at odds with the Episcopal Church.

“We’ve gathered from all over the world,” Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan said outside Canterbury Cathedral after the Eucharist. “We have a major crisis. A family that doesn’t face into the crisis it has is a family that is going to fall apart.”

Duncan said he is at Lambeth “working to bring us back to the faith once delivered for all. I’m standing as I have stood…I’m here to stand for the truth and the unity.”

Contrasting the way Anglican Communion bishops related to each other with the papal method one used by the Roman Catholic Church, Duncan added: “We meet as council and it’s hard for a council where all of the bishops are viewed to be equal to actually hold to its standards. So that’s what we’re struggling with.”


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