Once a decade, the Anglican Communion's bishops gather in Canterbury to celebrate the ties that bind.
This time around, a global coalition is preparing for the 1998 Lambeth Conference in a most unusual manner. It's bishops have done everything they can -- short of lighting a beacon in the British cathedral's high tower -- to issue a warning: "The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming!"
For two decades, Episcopalians have been fighting over the Bible, sex and marriage, with homosexuality getting the most ink. A month ago, 50 bishops and archbishops from 16 nations met in Dallas to discuss how to keep America's ecclesiastical sexual revolution from reaching their altars. The oldline Protestant sex wars have gone global.
Now, 37 participants in this "Anglican Life and Witness Conference" have sent an unusually blunt letter to each American bishop asking why so many of them are ordaining priests who are sexually active outside of the Sacrament of Marriage and letting their clergy perform same-sex union rites. The U.S. church now has a de facto policy allowing these actions.
"Why in this matter have such bishops failed to consider the judgment of their colleagues in other parts of the Anglican Communion, nor taken into account the repercussions of their actions in different areas of the world?", asked the bishops. "Do those who perform or sanction such ordinations and blessing knowingly set aside the authority of scripture and the doctrine of marriage given by God in creation and affirmed by his Son, Jesus Christ?"
The foreign bishops - mostly from Africa - asked American bishops to respond by the first of the year, either in writing or in face-to-face meetings. And, in a publicly released statement, the bishops didn't duck another painful issue: the possibility that American doctrinal innovations may shatter global Anglican unity at the level of bread and wine.
"Accountability ... calls us to provide a clear understanding of the bounds of eucharistic fellowship," they said. "Those who choose beliefs and practices outside the boundaries of the historic faith must understand they are separating themselves from communion and leading others astray. Sadly, that reality of broken fellowship can extend to individuals, congregations or even whole dioceses and provinces. Where this happens, we call for repentance and return."
These statements follow two other pre-Lambeth developments. During a February meeting of archbishops in Jerusalem, several participants - openly or privately, depending on who describes the scene - briefly suggested that the Episcopal Church's delegation be banned from Lambeth. This was followed by the conservative "Kuala Lumpur Statement" from 80 bishops in 20 of Anglicanism's 35 provinces, meeting in Malaysia.
Events at Canterbury will be shaped by two sets of numbers. The first is that 75 percent of the world's 70 million Anglicans now kneel in the rapidly growing, and strongly orthodox, churches of the Two-Thirds World. The second is that the First World's shrinking churches still have more bishops and larger trust funds, which provide crucial gifts to foreign churches. Nearly 750 bishops have been sent Lambeth invitations and almost a quarter of those who can afford to go will come from the Episcopal Church, which has about 2 million members.
Plus, it may be hard for conservatives to make a stand because planners have scheduled no plenary legislative sessions. Instead, most of the July 18- August 9 conference will consist of small-group meetings and formal papers on these topics -- "Called to Full Humanity," "Called to live and proclaim the Good News," "Called to be faithful in a plural world" and "Called to be One." This last topic could, ironically, cause the most division.
Most First World bishops will seek soothing sensitivity sessions that produce nuanced relationships, commitments to further dialogue and, at most, the traditional Anglican response to a crisis - a compromise conceived in a study committee. The Two-Thirds World bishops want clarity, before it's too late.
The coalition that formed in Dallas didn't mince words: "It is not acceptable for a pro-gay agenda to be smuggled into the church's programme or foisted upon our people and we will not permit it."