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CANTERBURY: The shindig begins with nerves and half-naked dancers

CANTERBURY: The shindig begins with nerves and half-naked dancers


by Joanna Sugden
The Times
July 21, 2008

The 14th Lambeth Conference had everything befitting a party that has been ten years in the planning: bouncers, paparazzi, an international guest list of thousands, in Canterbury Cathedral the most well-established venue in the city, world-renowned musicians and even half-naked dancers.

It also had everything you might expect at an awkward family party: unspoken feuds, some people refusing the invitation, others not asked to come, the host looking a little nervous and speeches entreating everyone to get along.

After three days on retreat, 600 bishops, archbishops and their wives poured into the 1,400-year-old cathedral to celebrate the start of the conference.

For the first time they processed in without the banners of their provinces and in random order - so those defying their primates' orders by attending could remain incognito. A small number of bishops snubbed the invitation, going to rival services or returning home to their own dioceses.

The talk as everyone arrived - much as at any shindig - was who was wearing what. Conservatives' fears that the only woman primate, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the US, would be among the party celebrating Communion did not materialise.

There was only one celebrant: the president, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

Then the entertainment began. The gospel reading about the uprooting of weeds was preceded by a troupe of Melanesian dancers, wearing grass skirts and playing pan pipes. This seemed to have the desired effect of loosening up the atmosphere and the host, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was even caught clapping along.

The more liberal in the company were reassured by words from the pulpit by the Bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, the Right Rev Duleep de Chickera, who said that the party was an "inclusive" one.

"There's space for everyone and anyone, regardless of culture, gender, ability, sexual orientation. Unity in diversity is the cherished Anglican tradition," he said.

As he spoke, just up the hill overlooking it all, an open-air service organised by representatives of Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transsexual Anglicans was about to take place.

The Bishop of New Hampshire, the Right Rev Gene Robinson, who was not on the guest list for Lambeth's centrepiece event, was in the front row, surrounded by pink ribbon, heartshaped balloons and multi-coloured plastic windmills.

Bishop de Chickera concluded his address, to what he called the "wounded Communion", with a Buddhist chant as the cathedral bell struck 12.

Unprecedented and spontaneous applause signalled that those present agreed that the event had been a success.

The Bishop of Los Angeles, the Right Rev John Bruno, said that he had had a wonderful time. "The music and the celebration and the sermon all led to a feeling of unity," he said.

The party got into full swing for the Bishop of West Virginia, who said the Holy Spirit was flowing throughout the whole service and had "descended on Canterbury". In full afterglow he said: "It was a joy."

For the Bishop of Lexington, the Right Rev Stacy Sauls, it was a welcome break from three days of quiet prayer and reflection before the conference. Michael Haugh, an Australian bishop, summed it up. "I thought it was a ripper," he said.

But what of those who had the stamina to make it to both events? The Bishop of Wyoming, the Right Rev Bruce Caldwell, compared the two. "Both were wonderful. Both were delightful in different ways. In the cathedral there was amazing architecture and voices of the choirs and singing. And here we have got a simple field and a simple wooden cross. I think Jesus was at both of them."

There were some niggles from party-goers, however. The Bishop of Pittsburgh, the Right Rev Bob Duncan, said: "It was a glorious service, it was a gathering of the family, but there were troublesome elements - the Buddhist chant, for example, and the sermon had a few challenges. A number of our brothers didn't make their Communion."

One Roman Catholic present, who asked not to be named, told The Times: "It was an extraordinary service, enough to make me consider becoming an Anglican." How many and who they were may never be known as they were all huddled in the venue's VIP area, screened off from prying eyes.



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