What do we make of a slow response?

Responses to invitations to the Lambeth Conference are coming in slowly enough that the Anglican Communion office has waived the original deadline. A sign of impending schism, excessive caution or is the mail simply slow?

Jonathan Petre of the Telegraph writes that this is a sign of impending schism. Citing the words of the Archbishop of Sydney, who will follow the lead of certain African primates, and an evangelical Church of England Bishop, he says this says there may be a grand snubbing of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Last week the Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev Peter Jensen, wrote to Dr Williams. The conservative evangelical said he and his five assistant bishops could not yet say whether they would come.

He said their decision would depend on the attitude of the liberal leadership of the American branch of the worldwide Church, which has been given until Sept 30 to reverse its pro-gay agenda.

And whose fault will in be if these Bishops decline to go to Lambeth? Why, the Americans, of course!

Archbishop Jensen indicated he would take the lead from the African conservatives. He will not attend the conference with the Americans unless they agree to toe the predominantly conservative line on homosexuality.

But a careful read of the article indicates that the number of Bishops who have either publicly declined or have expressed reservations is rather small. Also, the Bishops quoted as making dire predictions have overstated their numbers in the past.

What is not clear is what a typical level of participation at Lambeth might be. Readers must be alert to the reasons a bishop might decline to take part. For example, one can easily envision Bishops of smaller or poorer dioceses declining to take part because it is just too expensive. A simple percentage of attendees versus total number of bishops invited tells us very little. People interested in a particular cause should only count those who say out loud that they won’t take part because of a pang of conscience or out of principle, before declaring either a schism or the failure of the conference.

Reading some of the advance reactions to the alleged slow response gives one the impression that there are some who are hoping that Lambeth will be a failure. These stories may be an example of the game of shaping expectations in advance of an actual outcome.

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