LONDON, July 16 – Anglican bishops from around the world gather from Wednesday for a once-a-decade meeting clouded by deep splits over the roles of women and homosexuals.
About a quarter of the Anglican Church’s bishops including most from Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda are staying away from the Lambeth Conference, a week after the Church of England gave the green light to women bishops.
Another notable absentee will be the first openly-gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire in the United States, who was not invited but will be in Canterbury, southern England, following from the conference fringes.
It was Robinson’s consecration as bishop in 2003 which effectively carved out the battle lines in the ongoing bitter struggle between Anglican liberals and conservatives over gay and, most recently, women bishops.
The Church of England, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, is the mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has around 77 million followers.
In a letter to the communion’s nearly 900 bishops ahead of the Lambeth Conference (held only once every 10 years) Williams admitted that it may be a "painful" event but hoped it could help unite the communion’s factions.
In a bid to "break down the walls we have so often built against each other in the communion", he also announced a new format for bishops’ discussions, Zulu-inspired "indaba" groups.
Officials hope that these groups will encourage more listening among participants as they discuss issues ranging from sexuality to evangelisation.
"This makes it all the more essential that those who come to Lambeth will arrive genuinely willing to engage fully in that growth towards closer unity," Williams wrote in the letter in May.
"We hope that people will not come so wedded to their own agenda and their local priorities that they cannot listen to those from other cultural backgrounds."
Around 230 from a worldwide total of around 880 Anglican bishops are expected to stay away from the Lambeth Conference, many from developing countries.
Nearly 300 conservative Anglican bishops and archbishops formed a breakaway movement, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FOCA), following a conference in Jerusalem last month.
FOCA claims to represent half of the world’s Anglicans.
The schism hinges on the divisions between conservatives, who argue that allowing gay and women bishops goes against Bible teachings, and liberals, who want a more inclusive communion.
A reminder of the bitterness of the splits came Sunday when Robinson was denounced as a heretic by a worshipper who called on him to "repent, repent, repent" as the American preached a sermon in south London.
Senior figures including Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu have pleaded for unity ahead of the Lambeth Conference, which runs to August 3.