As the primates of the Anglican Communion troop through the doors of Lambeth Palace to discuss what some have called the greatest crisis to befall them since the Reformation, the often dour portraits of past archbishops will be looking down on them.

At an emergency conference, given over largely to prayer and worship in the medieval crypt of the palace, they will be aware that both saints and villains of Christian History have occupied this historic Christian house in the center of London.

Martyrs such as Thomas Beckett, William Laud, and even Saint Alphege, cudgeled to death by the ox bones of Viking warriors, are remembered here. The severe portraits of the post-Reformation glare down at the primates in the ancient guardroom of the palace, while the corridors are lined with luminaries and statesmanlike leaders such as William Temple and Michael Ramsey.

The Archbishopric of Canterbury is an office older than that of the British Prime Minister, second only to the Queen in the traditional pecking order. Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, is keenly aware of the weight of history and the colossal demands of the moment as he attempts to hold together the warring tribes of the 70-million-strong Anglican Communion.

But the battle for the soul of Anglicanism has been less in the Church of England than in America and Canada. The election of a noncelibate gay man, the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire and the blessing of homosexual unions in a greater Vancouver diocese have caused ripples throughout the world.

"When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold" is a phrase on the lips of at least one primate from Africa, who voiced the frustration felt by nearly all primates of the Global South. ...

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