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Volunteer corps keeps Lambeth running

Canterbury diocese members on call for conference needs

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[Episcopal News Service, Canterbury] They are everywhere on the University of Kent campus -- middle-aged to elderly men and women wearing gold sashes bearing the purple Lambeth Conference logo, ready to welcome visitors, give directions, answer questions.

Throughout the conference, which runs from July 16 to August 3, 300 volunteers from the Diocese of Canterbury are helping bishops and spouses attending the conference negotiate the campus and the historic city.

They represent a broad spectrum of congregations in southeast England, people who normally are on the usher team or the altar guild, now meeting Anglicans from around the world.

At one of three daily team briefings in a lecture hall, one of the team's leaders, Pat Tatchell, called out names and assignments. "Chris Roper? You are going to 'ministry skills.' Margaret Davis here? At 2:30, you need to be at the Giles Lane teaching annex. James Finch? At 2:30, you are going to be in the spouses hall. Now, everyone, you'll need to be in place at 2:15, so make sure you get something to eat," she said.

Tatchell and co-leader the Rev. Canon David Ratcliffe started recruiting volunteers about a year ago, under the auspices of a diocesan committee which handled local arrangements for the conference

"We made presentations to groups of parishes and gathered names," Tatchell said. "We talked about [volunteering as] a tremendous privilege. The world comes to the diocese. We said, you 'catch Lambeth' once you are involved. You want to be involved again."

The volunteers' briefing room in the Grimond Building at the University of Kent -- where the conference is taking place -- also contains boxes full of sweaters, socks and slacks, donated by churchgoers in the diocese. Bishops and their spouses from much warmer climates than England are often seen sorting through them, looking for something cozy to wear. While the 10 days of the conference were chilly, the second week's days have been very warm but the night air on the campus, high on a hill above Cantebury, has sometimes been cool.

Another volunteer team, called the stewards, comprises 60 men and women, aged 18 to 35, who are helping conference logistics such as the set-up of meeting rooms.

"The stewards were recruited from all around the communion," said one of them, the Rev. Michael Sniffen, from Lattingtown, New York. "We received eight days of extensive training before the conference."

"We also bring a pastoral presence," he said, noting that many of the stewards are ordained or seeking ordination. They have been asked also to assist at worship and will be joining Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for a retreat directly after the conference.

Many bishops, said Sniffen, have been talking with the stewards about current issues affecting the communion, since "we are the next generation of leadership." He also said that pre-conference talk of divisiveness among the bishops made him somewhat apprehensive, but the reality has been different. "The spirit has been much more generous and collegial than I thought. It's very heartening," he said.

The stewards are on board for the entire conference, while the volunteers work in shifts and return home at night.

Keith Dimond, 65, and his wife Judith, live in Littlebourne, near Canterbury. "I just wanted to help with the Lambeth Conference," said Keith Dimond. Having worked at the University of Kent as a lecturer in electronics and as master of Keynes College, Dimond saw previous Lambeth Conferences. "From my office, I could see the road full of satellite vans [belonging to media covering previous conferences]. Now that I'm retired, I have the opportunity to [volunteer]," he said. Dimond was staffing an information desk, helping bishops and spouses with everything from sightseeing in Canterbury to booking taxis.

One situation he coped with was the loss of some luggage of a bishop from the U.S. "His wife was more concerned about what was happening to her hat for the garden party at Buckingham Palace [on July 24] than about her husband's vestments!" he said, chuckling.

He has also directed some who had upset stomachs to the medical office, noting that visitors who have traveled from across the world may arrive feeling a bit queasy. "It's not like they're not visiting a parish and they come through the door looking like, 'What do I do here?' The key thing is being an interface," Dimond said.

The Rev. Peter Haynes, 69, a retired priest, who is volunteering along with his wife, Annette, 68, said the effort is "a small contribution to something very significant for the worldwide church." Annette Haynes said she enjoyed meeting a bishop's wife from New Zealand, since their son lives and works in Wellington. 

The Rev. Ron Preece, 79, said he was volunteering at his second Lambeth Conference, because he realized "they need a whole battalion here." His wife, Kathy, 75, is also a volunteer and they said they enjoyed meeting the bishop of Recife, Brazil, since Ron Preece was chaplain to a community of British expatriates there in the 1960s.

Although the bishops are contending in their sessions with disagreements over sexuality, theology and the consecration of women to the episcopate, he said he felt that "no matter the issues, there has been a sense of courtesy and goodwill" on the part of the bishops and spouses.

-- Solange De Santis is editor, Episcopal Life Media.

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