The primate of the worldwide Anglican communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, is about to begin welcoming church leaders to a once-in-a-decade summit.
The occasion is not a happy one, however, as the church is dealing with a widening rift between its conservative and progressive wings, and hundreds of bishops of the conservative mold are boycotting the meeting.
Some 800 prelates will be present for the three-week-long Lambeth Conference, as it is called, which formally opens on July 20. The summit opens informally on July 16 in the southern English city of Canterbury, where William's celebrated predecessor, St. Thomas Becket, was brutally murdered by the king's men in 1170.
The present archbishop need not fear such a drastic fate at the hands of his dissenting bishops. But he is perilously close to going down in history as the man presiding over a schism splitting the church in half.
Several hundred conservative bishops have turned down invitations to the conference. These dissenters, who are disinclined to recognize the authority of the senior Archbishopric of Canterbury, are enraged by the way the liberals in the church -- mainly in Britain and the United States -- tolerate women bishops and gay clergy. The presiding bishop of the U.S. church is a woman, Katherine Jefferts Schori.
The leader of the conservatives, Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinole, has said that there is "no longer any hope" of preserving a unified Anglican communion. At a conference in Jerusalem last month, 280 conservative bishops -- mainly from Africa and the developing world -- decided not to openly secede, but to form an independent council that would provide a "purer" interpretation of the scriptures for those rejecting the "permissiveness" of the liberals.
Struggle For Unity
The absence of the hard-core conservatives will make it difficult for Williams to foster the sort of dialogue he needs to preserve church unity. But Paul Handley, managing editor of the British Anglican church newspaper, the "Church Times," points out that there are many traditionalists who have not turned their back on Canterbury.
"There are still a lot of conservatives who are coming to the Lambeth Conference, so [the Jerusalem conference] did not attract all conservatives; some of the most hard-line went to [the Jerusalem conference] but there were many people who consider themselves to be conservative did not go there, and they will be at the Lambeth conference," Handley says.
There are also going to be some unwelcome guests, one of whom is Gene Robinson, the bishop of New Hampshire in the United States.
Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the church's 450-year history, was not invited to the Lambeth Conference because his presence was considered too much of a provocation. Undeterred, he came to England on his own account, where he has been gaining publicity by calling for the church to rid itself of homophobia.
Robinson has also called on the clergy to stop focusing on sexual and gender issues within the church, and to get on with ministering to the flock.
Another unwanted guest is excommunicated ex-Bishop Christopher Ssenyonyo of Uganda, who is reportedly traveling to England with the financial backing of a U.S. gay rights lobby group.
Editor Hadley says that, even leaving aside the hot issues, the Lambeth conference is a key moment for the Anglican Church. "It's time for the Anglican Church to work out whether it wants to be an international church with international rules, or whether it can continue to be a family of provincial churches, and I really think the church has not decided that. People want to take the church in both directions," Hadley says.
Meanwhile, support for the conservative Anglicans has come from an unexpected quarter, namely Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Benedict told journalists on July 13 that he is offering his support to those traditionalists in the protestant church who reject female clergy and same-sex marriages.
He said he does not want to interfere with a fellow Christian church, but that only by being faithful to the teachings of God can believers find the right path.
Benedict is now in Australia, where he is also facing difficulty in dealing with issues related to sex. He has said he will apologize to Australian Catholics for the misdeeds of pedophile priests. As in other parts of the world, the Australian church is under fire for not taking a strong enough line to expose and prevent child abuse among clergy members over many years.
Back in Canterbury, Rowan Williams will be striving to take a middle line on controversial issues, and to avoid a formalization of the de facto split which has already occurred in his church.