As the primates of the Anglican Communion troop through the doors of Lambeth Palace to discuss what some have called the greatest crisis to befall them since the Reformation, the often dour portraits of past archbishops will be looking down on them.

At an emergency conference, given over largely to prayer and worship in the medieval crypt of the palace, they will be aware that both saints and villains of Christian History have occupied this historic Christian house in the center of London.

Martyrs such as Thomas Beckett, William Laud, and even Saint Alphege, cudgeled to death by the ox bones of Viking warriors, are remembered here. The severe portraits of the post-Reformation glare down at the primates in the ancient guardroom of the palace, while the corridors are lined with luminaries and statesmanlike leaders such as William Temple and Michael Ramsey.

The Archbishopric of Canterbury is an office older than that of the British Prime Minister, second only to the Queen in the traditional pecking order. Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, is keenly aware of the weight of history and the colossal demands of the moment as he attempts to hold together the warring tribes of the 70-million-strong Anglican Communion.

But the battle for the soul of Anglicanism has been less in the Church of England than in America and Canada. The election of a noncelibate gay man, the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire and the blessing of homosexual unions in a greater Vancouver diocese have caused ripples throughout the world.

"When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold" is a phrase on the lips of at least one primate from Africa, who voiced the frustration felt by nearly all primates of the Global South. The 20-strong bloc of primates representing Asia, Africa, and South America have decided enough is enough. The warnings were there, the primates have told me in the last couple of days. At the 1998 Lambeth Conference the bishops of the Global South sent out a historic and powerful "no" to the permissive stance of Western churches toward marriage and sexuality. As soon as the Lambeth Conference was over, American and Canadian church leaders repudiated a resolution that ruled out ordaining noncelibate homosexuals and blessing gay and lesbian partnerships.

In their annual meetings the primates have underscored time and again the boundaries of diversity in the Anglican Communion, clearly setting out the teaching of the Bible as a non-negotiable. And while the primates of Canada and America have put their names to successive statements, their provinces have continued to push the boundaries farther and farther.

Article continues below

Primate after primate complains of the devastating effects of the Episcopal Church's actions on the rest of the world. In Muslim-majority countries the Christian community is often ridiculed and even persecuted in Islamic media and from mosques. The ministry of the Anglican Communion is under threat, says one. Another worries how his church can any longer continue its close association with the See of Canterbury when the cause of the scandal—the Episcopal Church of the United States—also has a continuing tie to the English Church.

In turn, American bishops and English clergy claim that homosexuals have been waiting too long for a justice that is theirs by right. The outspoken Dean of Southwark Cathedral, the Very Rev. Colin Slee, says the African primates have unbalanced the longstanding Anglican three-legged stool of Bible, tradition, and reason, prizing only the Bible. He claims they are outside the Anglican tradition. Many other liberal leaders attack the very idea of the Anglican Communion as anything more than a "federation" of churches with no accountability among the constituent parts.

In his first year of office, in what must be the steepest learning curve any Archbishop of Canterbury has ever faced, Williams must find a way through the conflicting claims. Though Williams is acclaimed as a theologian and inventive thinker, many believe that even his gifts cannot rise to the challenge. Criticized as a liberal, he has in contrast sided with conservatives and evangelicals in the major conflicts that have rocked his eight months in office.

In July he talked his close friend, the Rev. Canon Jeffrey John, a leading homosexual clergyman, out of taking up the post of Bishop of Reading after a chorus of protest from evangelical bishops and clergy in the Church of England. In recent days, he has sent clear signals to the Vatican, to the primates of the Global South, and to the media that his current sympathies lie with traditional teaching, despite his earlier writings as a theologian that loving, faithful homosexual relationships were not ruled out by the Bible.

Every journalist says Williams is impossible to read. But by the end of the two-day summit at Lambeth Palace on Thursday, the world will know whether the 38 primates of the Anglican Communion are holding their last meeting together, signalling the end of the Anglican Communion or the first of a new era in which the Global South finally rises to the challenge of leading this worldwide denomination.

Article continues below

Andrew Carey is a columnist for The Church of England Newspaper.

Related Elsewhere

See also today's Weblog, "Where Else to Go For News and Analysis of the Anglican Primates' Meeting."

Last week, Christianity Today associate editor Douglas LeBlanc filed reports from the American Anglican Council meeting in Dallas. His dispatches included "Conservative Episcopalians Challenge Church Politics as Usual," "Reimagining Anglican Bonds of Affection," and "Florida Bishop Defies Episcopal Church Head."