Melanesian men and women gather around Rev. Lusa Nsenga Ngoy, curate of Staplehurst, Kent, who read the Gospel for the opening service at Canterbury Cathedral. The Melanesian Anglicans had carried the Gospel in a miniature dug-out canoe decked with flowers and grass
In a eucharist rich in symbolism – from the transporting of the gospel in a flower-bedecked mini-canoe by Melanesians to the choice of homilist, music, and processional robes – Anglican bishops, their spouses and ecumenical participants gathered Sunday in the historic Canterbury Cathedral for the opening service of the 2008 Lambeth Conference.
Preaching at the service, the bishop of Colombo, Duleep de Chickera, whose church has been working for peace in war-torn Sri Lanka, urged bishops to “always give the highest priority” to helping transform the world by “bringing healing, peace, justice and reconciliation where there’s oppression, hostility and strife.”
In a pointed reference to the deep divisions over homosexuality that has preoccupied the Anglican Communion in recent years, he added: “No other priority can continue in its place. God has called us so we may participate with him in bringing this transformation.”
Nonetheless, he said, Anglicans needed to acknowledge that the reality that just as the world is “torn and divided,” so is the nearly 80-million Anglican Communion. “We are a wounded communion – some of us are not here and that is an indication that all is not well,” he said.
“Certainly the crisis is complex. It is not a crisis that can be resolved instantly and the journey ahead is a long and arduous one; a journey that will demand our prayers, our faithfulness, our mutual trust in each other and our trust in God who makes reconciliation possible.”
A total of 657 of the 800 bishops invited by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to the once-every-decade conference have arrived; the rest have chosen to boycott it to express their opposition to more liberal views on homosexuality by some Anglican churches, including those in the U.S. and Canada.
Bishops need to address three issues at the conference, said Bishop de Chickera: a return “to the discipline of self-scrutiny,” the need “to be an inclusive communion,” and to be “a prophetic voice.”
Bishop de Chickera said there is a need “to resuscitate and declare again and again the challenge of unity in diversity. As I look around here, I see a wonderful diversity,” he said. “…Different hands will touch the common cup. We are united despite our differences because in Christ we are equal. There’s enough to go around.”
He said that the church is being called “to be an inclusive communion: there’s a place for everyone and anyone regardless of colour, gender, ability, sexual orientation.”
Unity in diversity, he added, “is a cherished Anglican tradition, a spirituality, if you like, which we must reinforce for the sake of Christ and Christ’s Gospel.”
Anglicans need to be “the voice of the voiceless,” he added. “There are those who for political reasons, cultural reasons, economic reasons and military reasons, cannot speak for themselves and if they do, they do so at great risk. We must speak on their behalf, whether in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Afghanistan, or Iraq.” Anglicans, he said, should call into accountability “those who abuse power – authoritarian regimes who suppress and oppress people.” He added: “Talk of reconciliation is not complete unless we deal with the injustices of the world, regardless of where we are.”
In conclusion, Bishop de Chickera, quoted the 98th Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who once said, “The church is the number one institution that does not live for itself.” This, said Bishop De Chickera, “is the crux of Anglican identity and spirituality. We don’t live for ourselves.”
Unlike past opening services of the conference, this time bishops were not a sea of purple cassocks as they entered the cathedral for the procession: they were instead robed in the formal rochet (white robe with ruffled cuffs) and chimere (red overgarment) vestments. Primates were similarly garbed as the bishops, abandoning their resplendent copes and mitres. Only Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wore a cope of white and gold and a mitre of similar colours as he marched last in the order of procession before the service.
Also, unlike past conferences, bishops did not arrive as national church groupings when they processed in through the cathedral’s Great West Door, but were mixed across provinces.
This had been intentional, said Rev. Ian Douglas, an American member of the Lambeth Design Group. “There was a general desire in the opening eucharist to be less triumphal than what some expect Anglicans to be,” he said; “to be more accessible rather than this church or that.” Bishops processing in not according to church or province was also meant to symbolize “togetherness rather than broken apart as this church or that church.” It also symbolized new bonds that have been formed during a three-day retreat that began the conference earlier in the week, he said.
The setting of the eucharist, which began with a procession at 10:35 a.m., was the “Missa Luba”, “a version of the Latin mass based on traditional Congolese songs.”
Reflecting the diversity of the Anglican Communion, which is spread out across 164 countries, various parts of the eucharist were said in various languages – Korean, Japanese, Hindi, Portuguese, and French among them.
Melanesian men and women, wearing grass skirts and colourful headbands, carried the Bible in a miniature dug-out canoe as they sang, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” moved and danced to the beating of drums from the High Altar to the Cathedral’s Compass Rose, where the deacon of the liturgy, Rev. Lusa Nsenga Ngoy, curate of Staplehurst, read the Gospel of Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43 in French. The canoe plays an important role in the life of Melanesians, said Mr. Douglas. “It is used to transport, to connect.” In this case, he said, it was transporting “and holding the Holy Bible” and signifying connection.
Canterbury Cathedral, described as the mother church of the Anglican Communion and the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was closed to the public for the service, which lasted nearly two hours. Bishops, their spouses, and ecumenical participants began arriving as early as 9 a.m., waving as they walked the ancient cobblestone streets outside the Christ Church gate of the cathedral. It took 40 coach buses to transport them from the site of the conference at the University of Kent, to downtown Canterbury, where the cathedral is located, and is a popular destination for tourists and pilgrims.
Inside the cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury sat at the High Altar in the seat of Augustine, who had been in sent in 597 AD by Pope Gregory the Great as a missionary and established his “Cathedra” (seat) in Canterbury, South England. The cathedral has sustained much damage throughout its history – among them, at the hands of Puritans during the civil war of the 1640s.
At the end of the service, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall met with members of the media for the first press conference and expressed optimism about the conference, which had been hounded by controversy before it even started. “My impression in speaking with bishops is that there is an overwhelming commitment to the life of the communion. There is a strong sense that it’s alive and vital,” he said, adding that “people have warmed enormously well” to the retreat that Archbishop Williams had led. “He has fed us spiritually. It has drawn us together. That’s not to say that it’s going to resolve our differences. But we have a chance to move forward. It’ll be the way of the cross and the resurrection.”