Tourists mill about after being informed that Canterbury Cathedral is closed to the public during the three-day retreat of bishops attending the 2008 Lambeth Conference.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has expressed optimism about the Lambeth Conference saying that the three-day retreat for Anglican bishops that began on July 16, at the historic Canterbury Cathedral had been “a great start.”
Archbishop Williams made the remark during a very brief interview with the Anglican Journal at the reception last night for the book launch of Marriage, Mitres and Myself, authored by his wife, Jane, with contributions from other bishops’ spouses.
More than 600 bishops have been divided into Bible Study groups as part of the retreat and Canterbury Cathedral, which attracts thousands of pilgrims and tourists worldwide, has been closed to visitors during the three-day retreat to accommodate them.
Other bishops have expressed similar optimism about the progress of the conference, where bishops are to discuss a number of issues, but none as contentious and widely scrutinized by media as the place of homosexuals in the Anglican church.
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said the atmosphere at the conference has so far been “quite upbeat.” He noted that “a huge, huge number of people” have come to the conference “with a lot of good will and hope for the Communion.” He added: “I think that people are really looking forward to the conversations that really in so many ways are focused around relationships and mission.”
Bishop Linda Nicholls, suffragan bishop of Toronto (Trent-Durham), said Archbishop Williams’ call for prayer, both for bishops attending the once-a-decade conference and those who have chosen to boycott to express their opposition to liberal views about homosexuality, “was a wonderful way to start, because it’s helping us to be aware of the context we’re in — which is that some of us are not here — and reminding us that we’re one body.”
Bishop Nicholls said that at the retreat, Archbishop Williams had echoed the reminder that “we are the body of Christ gathered and our unity is in that and nothing else,” and that “we need to be constantly praying for those of us who are here and those who are not.”
Starting the conference with a retreat “is going to be a really important piece of helping us to be ready for what comes next in terms of conversation and dialogue,” said Bishop Nicholls.
She said that having the retreat at the cathedral and having all its precincts closed to the public has been “a tremendous gift” because it has given bishops “a holy space to be in – to talk quietly with a colleague, to hear Rowan’s addresses, and to know that you’re in the place where there’s been prayer for centuries and centuries and centuries.”
Being in retreat at the cathedral was also a great reminder “that the church has survived deep divisions, it survived the decimations of the Reformation, you know, in terms of the physical space, it survived arguments amongst people.” She added: “That gives me great hope.”
(The history of Canterbury Cathedral, described as the mother church of the Anglican Communion and the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, goes back to 597 AD when St. Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great as a missionary and established his “Cathedra” (seat) in Canterbury, South England. The cathedral has sustained numerous damages throughout history – among them, in the hands of Puritans during the civil war of the 1640s.)
Archbishop Hiltz said that Archbishop Williams “really set a good tone” in his opening remarks “expressing his focus for the conference that it would be above all grounded in worship and prayer and meaningful conversation.”
He said that Archbishop Williams had also “acknowledged with regret that some people have chosen not to come but he called on all of us to include them in our prayers and to be mindful of the kind of contribution that they may have been able to make to our conversations.”
Archbishop Hiltz said that it was “appropriate that (Archbishop Williams) named that right up front. That most of us are here but not all.” He commended Archbishop Williams for acknowledging this reality and for “the way he handled it in terms of saying, ‘let us remember that they are our brothers and sisters in Christ and they are colleagues in ministry and we need to remember them in our prayers as well’.”
Archbishop Caleb Lawrence, bishop of the diocese of Moosonee and metropolitan (senior bishop) of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario, described the first day of the retreat as “excellent.” He added: “The Archbishop of Canterbury is a deeply spiritual man. He’s also not afraid to face the issues and he really grounds them in scripture.”
Bishop K.P. Kurivila of the diocese of North Kerala, India, said that the Archbishop of Canterbury “did not talk much (at the retreat) but the message he conveyed is good for the future mission and ministry of bishops.”
He said that what resonated with him the most was Archbishop Williams’ reminder that “the responsibility of the bishop is to reveal Christ through us.”
Bishop Charles K. Ngusa, of the diocese of Shinyanga, Anglican Church of Tanzania, said that the conference has so far been “okay, everything’s calm, everybody’s happy; we’re exchanging ideas (and) there are positive responses of coming together and discussing together matters.”
Bishop Ngusa said Archbishop Williams’ call for prayers “is excellent because in all problems, for Christians, the only tool is to pray, to call on God’s mercy to help people become understanding, loving and sitting together and talking.”
Bishop Ngusa said he was “sorry” that some of his fellow African bishops have chosen to boycott the conference. “I’m sorry about that because boycotting something without knowing what it is, is not a fair decision,” he said. “But I think we will continue trying to sit together in African dioceses of the bishops who did not come, (to) persuade them to sit and discuss to come up with a conclusion that we should not divide ourselves.”
As far as the division over the issue of human sexuality is concerned, Bishop Ngusa said,
“I think God will settle the matter. It’s not easy for some of us human beings to settle the matter but God will settle the matter. I believe and trust that.”
He added that Anglicanism has gone through “waves” of problems and divisions in the past but that he believes the matter will “just settle” and that the Anglican Communion “will survive.”