This is a picture of the deposed Bishop of Recife in Brazil, Bishop Robinson Cavalcanti, outside Lambeth Palace on the evening of Tuesday October 4 2005. He arrived just as the House of Bishops meeting was ending and was invited to join the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and other bishops for evening prayer in the Chapel. Afterwards he had a half hour private talk with Archbishop Williams who also met the 'other' Bishop Robinson at around the same time last year. So it was with a sense of amazed disbelief that I read in the minutes of a recent meeting that Archbishop Williams had with the Brazilian bishops that Archbishop Williams was reported to have stated he "did not receive" the deposed Recifian after all. The meeting between the Archbishop and the Brazilians took place during the recent World Council of Churches meeting in Brazil in February.
So what is going on?
Here is the text of the minutes, in Portugese: 'Depois de ouvir o primaz e os bispos da IEAB, primeiramente, o Arcebispo Williams agradeceu ao primaz e aos bispos por aceitarem o seu convite e de poderem estar reunidos, face-a-face, sobre um assunto tão delicado. E começou sua fala, respondendo às perguntas feitas pela Câmara. Afirmou que nunca recebeu o Sr. Robinson, nem nenhum representante dele, em Londres. Quanto ao silêncio, disse que ele não é o "Papa da Comunhão" e que por isso optou ficar em silêncio. Reafirmou a autonomia de cada Província e que a decisão da Província do Brasil deve ser respeitada.'
Translated, the relevant part reads: 'Item 4.1, Lambeth Palace ABC confirmed that he did not receive Bishop Robinson Cavalcanti at Lambeth Palace, and neither did any representative of his, because he was questioned about that visit and reaffirm to IEAB bishops that he [Cavalcanti] was never received by the Archbishop in London.'
Here is the list of those present, taken from the minutes, which are posted on the top right hand corner of the Brazilian bishops' website: Dom Orlando Santos de Oliveira, Dom Clovis Erly Rodrigues, Dom Luiz Osório Pires Prado, Dom Jubal Pereira Neves, Dom Naudal Gomes Alves, Dom Maurício Andrade. Da parte do Lamberth Palace, Sua Graça Arcebispo Rowan William, Revdo. Côn, Andrew Normam, Secretário de Assuntos Internacionais do Lamberth Palace, e o Revdo Côn Kenneth Kearon, Secretário Geral do Conselho Consultivo Anglicano- ACC. The meeting took place on the morning of 18 February in the San Rafael Hotel.
Someone here is at best mistaken.
The question is, who?
Naturally, Cavalcanti's champions in orthodox Anglicanism are concerned that the leaders of the Brazilian church, a rare liberal outpost in the Global South, are claiming prominently on their website that the Archbishop of Canterbury said a meeting Cavalcanti claims took place in fact never occurred. Cavalcanti has himself written to Archbishop Williams, expressing his concern that he is being portrayed as dishonest by claiming the meeting took place.
Canon Andrew Norman, who was present at the meeting in Brazil, has told Cavalcanti's supporters that Archbishop Rowan never said any such thing. I understand that Lambeth Palace has written to the leadership of the Brazilian church early this month to ask for a correction, but none has appeared. I have deliberately waited more than a fortnight since that letter was sent before posting this article, to see if a correction would appear. It is possible that the mistake was just an error in translation but if that is the case, why has it not been changed?
Why does this matter? Is it not just a small dispute over semantics? I believe not.
Since his deposition, Bishop Robinson's award-winning church of the Holy Spirit and diocese of Recife have been under the jurisdiction of Greg Venables, Primate of the Southern Cone. Recife, under Cavalcanti's leadership, is a thriving diocese, with evangelical groups around the world helping to bring people out of a kind of desperate material poverty that we in the West can find difficult to understand. (This growing fluidity of provincial boundaries is more widespread than ecclesiologists imagine. Impeccably informed sources in London tell me that even the supremely orthodox Bishop of London, the Right Rev Richard Chartres, has quietly garnered a couple of parishes outside his boundaries - in Ecusa and New Zealand no less!)
The group Reform is helping the purchase of this house in Olinda for a pastor for the Church of Living Waters, a church of people who have been until recently living on the rubbish dump at Olinda in the diocese.
This is the Ecclesiastical Prison in Olinda. In Afghanistan, people can get executed for converting to Christianity. In Brazil, they merely used to get imprisoned for stepping out of line on matters of faith.
The Anglican Communion is in deep crisis. The General Convention in the US could see the ratification of the election of a gay or lesbian Bishop of California. Convention will also debate where Ecusa goes now in response to the Windsor Report. The outcome will determine whether Gene Robinson and the bishops who consecrated him are invited to Lambeth 2008. My guess is that when the invitations go out later this year, some of the US bishops and suffragans might be invited with observer status only, rather as the Ecusa delegates attended the ACC meeting in Nottingham. But beyond not inviting people and issuing public rebukes, there is very little Dr Williams can do with respect to Ecusa if the North Americans do decide to follow their liberal consience, as seems likely.
Meanwhile, work is going on to examine the ACC constitution for a way forward. The constitution is framed to allow new members to be elected into the Anglican Communion but there is no mechanism for expelling anyone or inviting them to leave.
It is to debate issues such as this that Dr Williams has convened a meeting at Lambeth Palace on 24 April to examine the 'options and scenarios' for the 'post-General Convention period' in the Anglican Communion. Those invited include the Bishops of Durham, Winchester, Exeter, Manchester, Norwich, Bristol and the Dean of St Paul's as well as representatives from the Church's mission agencies and Anglican Mainstream. They will discuss the implications for the Church of England and how the 'Instruments of Unity' should respond to whatever happens in Ecusa this summer.
In his letter of invitation, leaked to me, Dr Williams' head of staff Chris Smith says the roundtable discussion concerns the 'next critical months' in the life of the Anglican Communion. 'This is too important a set of issues to allow events to overtake us,' he says.
My source, who is not one of those invited, interprets it this way: 'The wording of the invitation makes it fairly clear that Lambeth is expecting no backtrack from Ecusa and is therefore working out how to manage the oncoming schism.' The implications of this are already being debated on Titusonenine and at Anglican Mainstream, where an address that Holy Spirit rector Miguel Uchoa gave in London last year can also be read. And also, by extaordinary coincidence, I have learned half an hour after first posting this piece that Rowan Williams has today, Thursday, actually been meeting with the Brazilian bishops, in London. Archbishop Orlando Oliveira, primate of Brazil, was in London for the three-day meeting of the ACC primates' standing committee that ended yesterday, Wednesday. So I expect we will all learn more soon. At the very least, we can hope that Archbishop Orlando might have been persuaded of the urgent need to correct his province's website.
Because for a liberal diocese to depose a leading conservative bishop and then appear to call into dispute his claims to have met the Archbishop of Canterbury surely indicates that the spiritual health of the Anglican Communion is poor indeed. It makes the prospect of saving the church from schism look bleaker than ever. It is not just the materially deprived who need the witness of church leaders such as Robinson Cavalcanti.