Anglicans Boycott Meeting, Split Over Women, Gays

Leaders of the world's Anglicans are meeting in London amid speculation that the church might split. Conservatives argue that there is no place for practicing homosexuals in the church.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's go next to England, where bishops of the worldwide Anglican Church are meeting. This meeting of church leaders comes once every 10 years. It's called the Lambeth Conference, after the London borough, and a palace where early meetings were held.

The big news is who didn't come this time. About a quarter of the bishops -mostly from Africa, Asia and South America - are boycotting. It's a dispute over the role of women and gay people in the church, as Vicki Barker reports.

VICKI BARKER: Paul Handley, managing editor of The Church Times, sits in his London office, sorting clippings from the mainstream British press. Many predict the breakup of the Anglican Communion. Back in the 1860s, when The Church Times was founded, he says, vicars who controversially put lit candles on their altars were often attacked by mobs from neighboring parishes.

Mr. PAUL HANDLEY (Managing Editor, The Church Times): The ritualist priests would have their own mobs, and the police would be called in. And so it was a hugely rambunctious time.

BARKER: In other words, Handley says, the Anglican Church has been here before.

Mr. HANDLEY: It ought to be possible in a Christian context, to have both the rows and the reconciliation going on at the same time. But we're human beings, so it doesn't really work that way, but I think open warfare is not necessarily a bad thing. This is how theology is done.

BARKER: Put that way, theology is definitely being done at this Lambeth Conference.

(Soundbite of church bells)

BARKER: Several of the traditionalist bishops refused to take communion during the colorful inaugural mass in Canterbury Cathedral.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (unintelligible)

BARKER: Other liberal bishops participated, and then also attended a separate service hosted by an Anglican gay and lesbian group. The guest of honor was the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson. Robinson wasn't invited to the three-week conference, a concession to the hard-liners which failed to head off their boycott. He's come to Britain anyway, as a walking reminder, he says, to his fellow bishops.

Bishop GENE ROBINSON (Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire): Every single one of them have gay and lesbian people in their pews, and they've taken vows to serve all of their flock, not just certain ones.

BARKER: But it's the people in the pulpit, not the pews, who are the subject of such controversy. Gregory Venables helped organize an alternative gathering of Anglican traditionalists in Jerusalem last month. He says he's heard little at the Lambeth Conference to reassure those convinced that the Bible forbids ordaining women or practicing homosexuals as bishops.

Mr. GREGORY VENABLES (Primate of the Southern Cone): The faithful of a few years ago are now the dissidents of today, and that's a tragedy. And that's why we believe we're at the end at the moment.

BARKER: Yet the traditionalists don't appear to speak for all conservative Anglicans.

(Soundbite of music)

BARKER: At Holy Trinity Church on London's up-market Sloane Square, the congregation is asked to pray for the bishops attending the Lambeth Conference.

(Soundbite of music)

BARKER: With its professional choir and incense-swinging celebrants, Holy Trinity is very smells-and-bells, as the Brits would say. It is firmly on the Catholic end of the Anglo-Catholic tradition from which many of the traditionalists sprang. But on the issues causing such anguish within the Anglican Communion, Holy Trinity's clergy are deliberately silent.

Over tea, one of them, the Reverend Graham Rainford, says he parks his personal beliefs about homosexual clergy at the church door, just as he did when women were first ordained.

Reverend GRAHAM RAINFORD (Holy Trinity Church, London, England): I mean, people knew where I stood, but never once did I preach on it, other than around it, about issues of how do we discern the will of God within the church. I mean, I think it's quite legitimate for a preacher to talk of that but not say, you know, and this is what we ought to believe.

BARKER: In some ways, this dispute is not so much about sex as about power. The hard-liners think the Archbishop of Canterbury should crack down hard on national churches which try to make ancient teachings accommodate modern morays. Those boycotting the conference are threatening to create a parallel church within a church which will wield that kind of authority - among themselves, anyway. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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