This year’s conference will hold no formal plenary debates, and will vote on no resolutions. Working with a “design team” that included at least one representative from the American church, the Rev. Ian T. Douglas from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., Archbishop Williams devised a format that allotted three days, beginning last week, for the bishops to go into retreat at the cathedral, meeting in small groups to discuss, pray and listen to five sermons by Archbishop Williams. To limit the risks of discord, conference organizers say they have asked the bishops to take “appropriate care” in anything they say to reporters. In the second week, the bishops move into larger sessions to deal directly with the issue of gay and female clerics, in a session titled “Human Sexuality and the Witness of Scripture.”
The arrangements have led to criticism of Archbishop Williams from liberals and conservatives, who say his “stealth” approach to the most sensitive issues will do nothing to resolve them. The criticism has built on a frequent critique of the straggly-bearded Archbishop Williams, 58, as an other-worldly, Oxford-educated theologian who lacks the political skills, and perhaps the power of personality, to force compromise. His supporters say the divide is so wide that he has little choice but to play for time, and hope that Christian values of tolerance and understanding will foster a spirit of compromise.
Dr. Phillip Aspinall, the Anglican primate of Australia, acting as chief spokesman for the conference, offered a weary prognosis after Sunday’s Eucharist of what the talking might achieve. “The last Lambeth Conference didn’t resolve our differences, the one before that didn’t resolve them, and this one won’t, either,” he said. “That’s the journey of life, until the Lord returns, I’m afraid.”
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