According to the British Constitution and the Canons of the Established Church of England, Dr Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primate and Metropolitan of all England. His Cathedral-See is the ancient See of Canterbury and his London home is Lambeth Palace. He has no ecclesiastical authority in Scotland, Wales or Ireland.
Because of this position and status, and because the Conference (not Synod or Council) of Anglican Bishops has always been held in England since 1867, the Archbishop has always been the one to invite bishops from overseas churches in fellowship with the Church of England and himself to the (usually every ten years) Conference, held initially at Lambeth Palace (thus the name of the Lambeth Conference).
For the July-August Conference of 2008 held at Canterbury, Dr Williams has generally followed the traditional set-up: he has invited the bishops; using advisory groups he has set the structure and content of the Conference, and he is presiding over it (which includes in 2008, his leading an initial Retreat for all bishops). What will be noticed at the end is the absence of any Resolutions on pressing topics (which has occurred from 1867 to 1998).
However, for the first time in modern times, a large number (between a quarter and a third of the whole of those invited) have refused and are not present. And these bishops come from provinces that are growing and which have large memberships.
Let us now ask: How do the bishops present view the status of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the Conference begins?
The fact that they are present, suggests very strongly that they accept his right to invite bishops, to fix the structure and content of the Conference and to preside over it. And they may connect this to his status as the Primate of all England.
Further, as there has been much talk in the last decade about the central place of the Four Instruments of Unity in modern Anglican life (see The Virginia Report of 1998 and The Windsor Report of 2004), the bishops also no doubt see Dr Williams as “the First Instrument of Unity,” and recognize his calling of the Lambeth Conference (itself an Instrument also) as part of this vocation. Other important aspects of this position include his calling of the Primates’ Meeting and his Chairmanship of it, along with his major participation in the Anglican Consultative Council, made up of clergy and laity. Thus has a very major role outside of England.
Amongst those present are a hundred or so bishops, who previously attended Gafcon in June in Jerusalem. Included in them is the Primate of the Southern Cone of S. America. It is now becoming clear that many in this group (as the 250 or so bishops not present) have a very reduced estimate of the role of the Archbishop outside England, and are beginning to say so in clear terms (see the very clear Message of the Primates of GAFCON to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dated July 18th, 2008, using “colonial” images).
This in general terms is how they have been expressing their problems with Dr Williams in a variety of forms over the last several months:
“There are at least two problems associated with the ABC.
One is the fundamental problem that he is appointed by politicians. Once, when England was more Christian it worked well enough.
But to have a major Church leader appointed without any serious grass roots engagement by the churches is unsustainable in the increasingly secular world.
The other is Dr Williams’ abysmal failure to uphold by discipline the resolution 1.10 from 1998.
The African primates would not be using colonial talk about the role of the present Archbishop, if he had done his job in this matter.
He would have saved the unity of the Communion had he done so. He has failed to be ‘the First Instrument of Unity’.”
The Primates of Gafcon also have very serious problems with the content of the latest version of the Anglican Covenant and their opposition to it means –because of their sheer numbers and influence--that it is already dead as a means of uniting the present thirty-eight Provinces. So this is a major blow to the plans of Dr Williams and others who placed high hopes in this Proposed Covenant (suggested originally by The Windsor Report).
So while it will be in a sense business as usual at Lambeth 2008 from July 20 to August 4, with the Archbishop as President, behind the scenes and around the world, it will be known that up to one third of Anglican leaders believe that he leads a basically colonialist structure and with this they want nothing to do!