Leader: Who can come to the party

23 May 2007

THE AMERICANS are coming. Invitations to the 2008 Lambeth Conference went out to 800 bishops on Tuesday, scotching rumours that those in the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Church of Canada would not be welcomed without further concessions over Gene Robinson (and no further initiatives on gay partnerships).

The September deadline set by the Primates for the US bishops to agree an alternative structure for their conservatives still stands, but attendance at the Lambeth Conference will not hang on it. Threats might still be made, and attempts to persuade Dr Williams to invoke his right (which his letter carefully reserves) to withhold or withdraw invitations.

But Dr Williams is unlikely to act so unwisely. For all their talk of alternative gatherings, the conservatives will not want to walk away when they feel in possession of the centre ground, especially given their numerical confidence.

So much for the provincial groups. The case for individual bishops is not so clear. Dr Williams’s letter is a curious document. For the most part, it reads as a preamble to a universal invitation: attendance does not commit bishops “to accepting every position held by other bishops as equally legitimate or true”.

But then comes the paragraph about withholding invitations from certain individuals because “we need to know as we meet that each participant recognises and honours the task set before us.”

The vagueness of the phrase implies that its author knew that the grounds for excluding particular bishops didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Bishop Robinson was duly consecrated after a selection process much more representative of the views of the clergy and laity than the one in England.

To exclude him because he has scandalised others seems a dangerously arbitrary precedent. And what of Bishop Minns, who, like the AMiA bishops before him, was consecrated into what looks uncannily like a breakaway Church? If he is excluded from Lambeth, what of the Primate who consecrated him? It is no wonder that Dr Williams commits himself to nothing more than “seeking further advice”.

We find it hard to fathom what the bishops fear. The Communion’s 800 bishops could be placed on sliding scales of competence, commitment, holiness, honesty, and so on. Since those not on the official list are likely to turn up in Canterbury anyway — and to use their time fruitfully with lobby groups and the media — the line between sanctioned and non-sanctioned bishops blurs further.

If the purpose of the Lambeth Conference is to explore ways in which the different expressions of Anglicanism can work together, the exclusion of those at certain extremes (plenty of other extremists are invited) will undermine its effectiveness.

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