When the first Lambeth Conference opened in 1867, only 76 of the Anglican Communion's 144 bishops accepted an invitation by the Archbishop of Canterbury to attend because of disagreement among them about the way the church was shaping-up in British colonies - writes Trevor Grundy.
The impetus for the 1867 meeting came from the Anglican Church in Canada, concerned about the activities of the British-born bishop of Natal in South Africa, John Colenso. He was tolerating polygamy among African converts to Christianity, and questioning traditional doctrines about the Eucharist and eternal punishment.
When this year's Lambeth Conference opened in Canterbury on 16 July, many senior leaders of churches in Africa had absented themselves because of the issues of gay bishops, same-sex partnerships, Christian rights for lesbian women, and women bishops.
"For decades, women, gays, polygamy and venereal disease have divided the attendees," commentator Christopher Caldwell wrote in the Financial Times newspaper on 11 July. "At this year's conference, the bishops are expected to clash over the ordination of Gene Robinson, a non-celibate gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003."
Hundreds of journalists from all over the world have been accredited and some of them say there's only one "real" story around - that about Robinson. He has not been invited to the conference but will be in Canterbury to lobby for homosexual men and women. His story has already been prominent in television footage, radio airwaves and print columns.
Some senior church leaders say there is a danger that the "issue" of Robinson might hijack the conference which is called every 10 years to discuss matters of concern for the churches that make up the 77 million strong Anglican Communion. Were the issues around Robinson to do that it would be a tragedy, some senior church leaders told Ecumenical News International.
"I think that some Anglicans are bored with the issues that are dividing the Church," Bishop Nick Baines of Croydon in southern England told ENI. The Dean of Southwark, the Rev Colin Slee, added, "They want to get on with the real job of addressing social needs."
The 2008 Lambeth Conference was in June preceded by a meeting in Jerusalem of about 1000 senior Anglicans, many of them Africans, including almost 300 bishops, who set up a new global network to fight for what they called traditional biblical Anglicanism. The meeting, called the Global Anglican Future Conference, was widely seen as an "alternative" Lambeth Conference.
Following the Jerusalem meeting, bishops from Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda are boycotting the 16 July - 3 August Lambeth Conference, along with several US bishops, and Michael Nazir-Ali, the bishop of Rochester, in southeast England.
Still, the Anglican church in Malawi has said it will attend the Lambeth Conference, despite its opposition to homosexual bishops, because it says it believes in dialogue rather than boycotts. South African bishops will also attend.
If full Christian rights are eventually given to homosexuals within the Anglican Communion, an exodus of clerics and like-minded members of the laity to the Roman Catholic Church is expected.
Asked how he felt about disunity in the Anglican Communion, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, said: "We really don't rejoice at all. It diminishes the standing of Christianity."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]
The new book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow, is published by Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia.