Anglicans are trying a "bold, new thing" this summer, ditching legislation for more "conversation" at the once-a-decade global leaders gathering.
Rather than approaching the Lambeth Conference the traditional way – a parliamentary process that includes drafting resolutions and writing reports – bishops from across the 77 million-member Anglican Communion will hold continuous talks to better understand one another and build relationships at a time when the global church body is wracked with division.
"The reality is that parliamentary procedure ... leads generally to winners and losers," said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, head of The Episcopal Church in the United States, Tuesday. "We're accustomed to living in a democratic system where people vote and most go along with the will of the majority but it does produce an out group – a group that has not succeeded in their quest.
"The focus at this Lambeth that removes the emphasis on parliamentary procedure and legislation really brings us back to the heart of what it means to be a Christian community."
Schori said she hopes attendants will meet each other as complex human beings rather than "single positions" on certain issues and "encounter each other as human beings working in vastly different contexts around the globe."
The Lambeth Conference comes after years of talk of schism in the Anglican Communion. Controversy heightened when The Episcopal Church – the U.S. branch of Anglicanism – consecrated openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson in 2003. Although the U.S. body has pledged to "exercise restraint" in its pro-gay stance, conservatives say The Episcopal Church has yet to show true repentance.
Conservative bishops, including Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola – considered the world's most powerful Anglican leader – have threatened to boycott Lambeth partly over the invitation of bishops who supported the 2003 consecration of Robinson.
Amid divisions, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams – the Anglican spiritual leader – has decided to focus on Bible study, conversations and equipping bishops to be "better" bishops at the 2008 Lambeth, taking a different route from previous Lambeth meetings.
Some are suspicious that the new program avoids tackling the controversial issues wracking the global Communion.
But the Rev. Dr. Ian Douglas, a member of the Lambeth Conference Design Group, assured to the media that they won't be shying away from the hard questions.
Among the 10 topics that bishops will be discussing in "purposeful conversations" are biblical authority and human sexuality, Douglas said. Anglican identity, government and the environment will also be discussed in small groups throughout the course of 10 days.
But no voting or final decisions will be made at the conference.
Douglas said the small group conversations are designed to go beyond the "back and forth" debates and parliamentary procedure that tend to "alienate, divide and cause hurt" and privilege one way of being the church.
"It's decentered, it's conversational and it's relational," he said, describing the new Lambeth program, which will include speaker Brian McLaren, a leader in the emergent church movement. "We can't think of a better thing to do ... than provide opportunities for genuine and deep conversations and building of relationships."
Also stressing the conversational aspect, Jefferts Schori said the discussions are designed for "hanging out with people you don't know."
The U.S. Episcopal head, who supports the full participation of gays and lesbians in the church, hopes that ultimately, deep conversations will lead to "opportunities for conversion."
As Anglicans around the world prepare to attend the anticipated Lambeth meeting in England in July, Douglas insisted that the Anglican Communion is not falling apart. Rather, the church body is "in the process of becoming" as they learn to be with one another from different contexts and understandings, he said.
Just ahead of Lambeth, conservative bishops will be holding their own gathering called GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference) in an effort to go back to Christian roots and affirm traditional Anglican faith. Many conservative bishops believe The Episcopal Church has abandoned Scripture and traditional Anglicanism.