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Senior, junior bishops at Lambeth celebrate the old and the new

Decades of seeking 'fresh' relationship, common ground marks conference history

[Episcopal News Service, Canterbury] Bishop Dinis Sengulane of Lebombo in Mozambique has attended four Lambeth Conferences but says the prospect of this one still filled him "with fear and trembling, as if it were the first time. I am still full of excitement because everything is new and everything is fresh."

Bishop Eugene Sutton of Maryland was consecrated June 28, just two weeks before he arrived at Lambeth 2008, also very excited. He recalls a few anxious moments too: "The first time I spoke to the bishops, I was nervous as all get-out" before addressing the "hot topics" of full inclusion and authority of Scripture during a Windsor Continuation Group discussion.

Hot topics are nothing new at the every-decade worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops. Bishops with a Lambeth track record say that, over time, some things have changed, and others, not so much.

What hasn't changed, the bishops say, are varying cultural contexts and the search for common ground. However, one whopping change involves technology. For first-timers like Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves of El Camino Real in northern California and Bishop Prince Singh of Rochester, New York, laptops in the big top don't seem all that unusual. But for Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Florida, blogging bishops add a whole new dimension.

Lambeth 'seniority' and hot topics
Bishop David Alvarez of Puerto Rico says Lambeth 2008 is a return to the "consultative nature" of the 1978 conference, his first, with the addition of the indaba discussion groups -- about which he gives mixed reviews.

Each meeting experienced its own struggles and yet "you can't compare in terms of better or worse [but] you can see certain signs," says Sengulane.

In 1978, "while we were here 600 people were killed by the then Rhodesian government," Sengulane recalled. "Zimbabweans were fighting for their liberation. How sad that years later as we meet, Zimbabweans are being killed by the people in power there. It's a very sad situation."

On the other hand, "we were also looking at South Africa. I remember hearing the message by the primate [that] his bishops were not allowed to come. And now, they are here."

Bishop Assistant Bob Anderson of Los Angeles had been Bishop of Minnesota about a year when he first attended Lambeth in 1978 with spouse Mary and their four children. He remembers feeling warmly welcomed. "There was not a lot of diversity then, it was relatively monochromatic."

The ordination of women as priests and bishops was -- and is -- a hot topic. Women were ordained in the Episcopal Church (TEC) in 1976 and "there was still talk about it in 1978," recalled Sengulane, 62. Ten years later in 1988, with the prospect of women bishops on the horizon, "the press was saying we are going to have a fight over it … but we found common ground," he said.

1988: cultural contexts, women's ordination, and polygamy
A third of Anglican provinces have given permission to ordain women bishops, but the issue sparked recent controversy in the Church of England. Reeves of El Camino Real said, "We've determined there are 23 women bishops, including retired and inactive, in the Anglican Communion."

Food and other "things were a lot cheaper" and there was more free time at the 1988 gathering, remembers Frade, 64, of Southeast Florida. It was his first conference and he scheduled time to preach one weekend at the American Cathedral in Paris.

It was also the year of polygamy. "I remember arguing from what I thought was the tradition of the church and saying the Bible doesn't allow that [polygamy]," recalls a chuckling Frade. "And the bishop [who raised the issue] said, 'you people in the west also practice polygamy -- serial polygamy. You marry and you divorce, you marry and you divorce. I had to say, 'well, you got a point there'. Finally, it was decided that you do your missionary strategy in your own way and we don't need to look over other people's shoulders because of cultural context."

Los Angeles' Anderson remembers the Rev. Canon Nan Peete, an African American priest from the United States, receiving death threats because she was the first ordained woman to address Lambeth.

Peete later referred to it as "the proudest moment and most terrifying moment of my career … because I was wondering whether or not I could say something that would have meaning beyond my own story or even the Episcopal Church."

1998: faithful to context, striving for relationship
By 1998, Anderson had retired from Minnesota and was serving as bishop assistant in Los Angeles. "The decision was made that I'd stay home and we'd pay for two African bishops to attend," he said. Alvarez recalls it as a contentious meeting over sexuality and full inclusion of gays and lesbians -- a carryover to this year's meeting.

"We continue to give attention to an issue that is not an issue to the general society, only to us 'religious people' or 'biblical literalists' when more and more societies and governments …  have liberated the laws for allowing legal union between same-sex people because of the recognition of the importance of justice and equality for all," he said.

Sengulane of Mozambique remembers it as a time of "looking at debt and of evaluating the decade of evangelism. It is amazing to hear stories of Nigeria. They took it very seriously and the number of dioceses grew from 39 to 97, the number of members grew from 4 million to 18 million. What a pity they are not here to tell us more because we know a lot has happened, especially in the areas of stewardship.

"Now, here we are, with women bishops from different parts of the world and there are bishops who will not ordain women in their own diocese, but they are together."

2008 and beyond: Lambeth teleconference in the offing?
Reeves is one of the newest woman bishops, ordained in November 2007. This is her first Lambeth Conference and, if technology continues its rapid advances, the next may be unrecognizable.

Does that mean Lambeth may eventually be one big teleconference? All bishops -- senior and junior -- say an emphatic no, there's just no substitute for up-close and personal.

But Reeves ponders the possibilities of meeting every five years for 10 days instead. "In five years, the world is going to change twice over from where we are now. Think of where we were 10 years ago," she said. "In 10 years, what will the world look like?" But she added that there isn't "any replacement for face to face contact. You cannot get that over a satellite."

While Singh of Rochester is open to a Lambeth teleconference possibility, he says sharing his own story has helped to deconstruct "caricatures" of TEC. There is a tendency of some to believe "that we are like George Bush … [and to link] what happened with Bishop Gene Robinson with what happened in Iraq."

It offers an opportunity, "to say we are really trying to be faithful to our context in responding to the amazing possibility of the Gospel of being available for people who are otherwise treated as outcast."

"That aspect of our identity is typically not there in the attitude of most people upset with the United States," says Singh, raised by a single mother in India and a human rights advocate for the Dalit, the outcasts, who comprise most of the membership of the Church of South India.

"When I talk about moving to the United States, working for the church and eventually being elected Bishop of Rochester, a predominantly white church, they say, 'wow, how did that happen?

"It makes me feel really good about TEC … that we're such an inclusive church," Singh said. "We proudly have the most number of women here, the most number of bishops of color in a predominantly white church and these are not appointments, these are elections. So, it tells us a little of the core values of our baptized and that makes me really joyful, really joyful."

Sutton of Maryland agreed. A descendant of slaves, he observed that a plaque in Canterbury's Christ Church Cathedral celebrates the family of Maryland's first bishop, a slave-owner. It prompted him to address bishops about issues of full inclusion and authority of Scripture.

"I hear so much that you are either for full inclusion of gay and lesbian people and all others in the church or you believe in the Bible. That's a false choice," he said.

"I told them to talk to any of the African American bishops in TEC about how Scripture can be used to subjugate and scapegoat. I spoke from experience but I also realize that people don't agree with me. But, a full inclusion agenda is full inclusion of even all viewpoints."

For Paul Lambert, bishop suffragan of Dallas, who was consecrated about 48 hours before leaving for Lambeth, tea at Buckingham Palace might have been a little more socially responsible if "we didn't have lunch. Or, if we ate a bowl of rice, which for most people is what they eat for the whole day.

"We need to rethink some of the things we do," Lambert observed. "We're not going to change the environment or address these issues until we stop doing the things we've always done."

One tradition that hasn't changed is tea with the Queen. Mary Anderson of Los Angeles remembers dashing to the nearest tent for shelter during a sudden 1988 thunderstorm. She discovered she was in the royal tent and soon was face to face with Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth whom she describes as "charming."

By the way, Archdeacon Paul Feheley of the Anglican Church in Canada says that Queen Elizabeth actually "wins the prize for the most Lambeth Conferences attended, without doubt." She visited with Lambeth guests "in 1948 with her father; she wasn't Queen yet, and has hosted them ever since, 1958, 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998, 2008."

-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the dioceses of Province VIII. She is based in Los Angeles.

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