Dr. Rowan Williams will make his first visit to Canada as Archbishop of Canterbury with a visit to the April meeting of the Anglican Church of Canada's House of Bishops in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
"We have had the invitation in the works for over a year; we struggled with his calendar and we received the answer today [January 26]. We're delighted," said Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.
The move is significant since Williams has come under criticism for avoiding the U.S. and Canadian churches since his appointment in 2002 and since the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada have been seen as moving toward more-liberal views on homosexuality at about the same time.
He declined an invitation to attend a joint meeting of U.S. and Canadian bishops in Windsor, Ontario, in 2005, drawing criticism from Hutchison at the time. "It does send a very, very negative symbol to the Canadian church, no question. The message it sends to us is that at the moment he does not want to be associated with the Canadians," he said before the Windsor meeting.
Speaking in an interview on January 26, Hutchison noted that in 2005, "the water was really churning over 'the issue' [of homosexuality and the church]."
The bishops attending the joint 2005 meeting included Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who is in a long-term relationship with another man and whose election in 2003 was one of the flash points for the current worldwide controversy within the Anglican Communion.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, then-Bishop of Nevada, also attended the meeting.
More recently, Bishop Paul Marshall of the Pennsylvania-based Diocese of Bethlehem wrote to fellow bishops upbraiding Williams for not personally visiting the U.S. church's national General Convention last June. "We deserve to hear from him, in the room with us," he said, adding that Williams had spent more time talking to a bishop leading a breakaway group than in talking to "our entire house of bishops or even our church gathered in convention." Marshall's letter was reported in the British Church Times newspaper in January.
However, the Canadian House of Bishops does not plan officially to discuss current affairs with Williams, who is scheduled to arrive on the evening of Monday, April 16, at the Mt. Carmel retreat house and participate in a full-day retreat on Tuesday, April 17, said Hutchison.
"He is a brilliant theological thinker whom we want to have access to. I anticipate he'll give a series of addresses that the bishops will be reflecting upon," said Hutchison. There is no theme or scriptural reference as yet for the retreat day, he said, noting that a committee is continuing to plan the meeting, which will run from April 16 to 20, although Williams is scheduled to leave after the April 17 retreat day.
The bishops' spring meeting is significant since they will be choosing candidates for the office of primate. The election of a new national bishop is scheduled to take place on June 22 at the triennial General Synod meeting in Winnipeg that runs from June 19-25.
"We (bishops) need to do some careful reflection on the future of the church, so we have taken a full day ahead of the house of bishops (business) meeting to center ourselves," Hutchison said.
Although political subjects aren't on the agenda, Hutchison said that "there are mealtimes and coffee breaks" at which such discussions might take place during the retreat day. In addition, the Archbishop of Canterbury's visit comes the year before the decennial Lambeth Conference in 2008, a gathering in England of the world's Anglican bishops. The last conference in 1998 saw heated disagreement over the issue of homosexuality.
Before he visits the bishops, Williams is also scheduled at an appearance at Trinity College in Toronto, Hutchison said.