Church rallies round Williams as African bishops boycott Lambeth

An international coalition of bishops is rallying to the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury in a move that appears likely to ensure Anglican unity as the church enters one of its most crucial weeks since the Reformation. In all, 650 bishops from around the world are gathering at the University of Kent in Canterbury for this week's Lambeth Conference. Apocalyptic scenarios have been predicted, but it now appears that the broader Anglican family will hold together thanks to a series of sermons by Rowan Williams appealing for unity and the desire among bishops – including many from Africa – not to be seen to be the wreckers of the communion.

The bishops are already involved in highly secretive meetings within Canterbury Cathedral, but yesterday The Independent spoke to a group which said "a new Pentecost" was emerging as fears of a damaging schism faded. Other sources confirmed that what was perceived as a slightly more conservative line being taken by Dr Williams with regards to women bishops and sexuality, was finding favour.

The Archbishop has made it clear to the gathering – which will continue at Canterbury for the next two weeks – that while he is listening to the concerns of all, he is keen to address other issues facing churches and communities around the globe.

Sources say he wants to focus the conference on issues such as the plight of persecuted minorities in Sudan.

Last night that approach appeared to be finding favour with bishops from Africa who have not joined a boycott.

In a series of closed-door meetings, Dr Williams has spoken of his "great grief" that more than 200 bishops are not attending the Lambeth Conference.

Absentees were thought to be from Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda though conference organisers say a bishop has now emerged from Rwanda. One bishop told of being hugged by a fellow bishop from west Africa who had previously been critical.

Among those rallying round the Archbishop last night was Peter Lee, the Bishop of Christ the King Diocese in southern Africa. He said: "Archbishop Williams has urged us retune our ears to God".

Another now backing Dr Williams, Valentino Mokiwa, the new Archbishop of Tanzania, added: "The Archbishop is paving the way forward for the Lambeth Conference. He has asked us to be biblical and trust in God." The Archbishop is said to be in high spirits after – temporarily at least – leaving behind domestic rows sparked by the "wedding" of two vicars and the formal acceptance of women priests at the General Synod, and focusing instead on the mission of his church.

"The Archbishop is asking us to reflect on our role as bishops in the light of scripture. His words are deeply spirited," added Philip Poole, the Suffragan Bishop of Toronto.

The seriousness of the task facing Dr Williams is clear, as he attempts to keep the focus on issues such as the plight of the Sudanese – symbolically invoked when their representatives presided over the Eucharist at the Cathedral this week – and social justice at home and abroad.

The broad meaning of Anglican identity will be discussed on Monday, along with evangelism on Tuesday, social injustice on Wednesday, and the environment on Saturday.

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