In the first such meeting outside England, the heads of the 28 Anglican churches around the world wil assemble here in the next few days to grapple with a variety of problems, including questions of authority within Anglicanism and relationships with other churches.
Although the meetings of the primates, as the Anglican church heads are known, will be held behind closed doors at the College of Preachers, the international church gathering will include a number of public events.
Undoubtedly the greatest public interest will center on a festival evensong Friday, May 1, at the conclusion of the primates' gathering, at which Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, will read the lesson and Archbishop Khotso Makhulu of Central Africa will preach. The prince is to be in this country to accept an honorary degree from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
Washington's Episcopal Bishop John T. Walker, who has been designated as chaplain to the primates, will conduct the opening worship service at Washington Cathedral on Sunday at 4 p.m. The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Robert Runcie, will preach at the cathedral's 11 a.m. service Sunday.
The first of the events surrounding the primates' assemblage will be a symposium on world mission tomorrow night at 6:30 at St. Monica's Church, 1340 Massachusetts Ave. SE. Walker and East African archbishops from Kenya, Tanzania and the Anglican province of Burundi, Rwanda and Zaire will take part.
Other topics on the agenda of the primates' meeting include a discussion of attitudes toward war in a nuclear age, problems of world poverty and reports from each of the churches.
The most emotional question currently confronting Anglicanism in many parts of the world, ordination of women to the priesthood, is not formally on the agenda, but it may emerge in the consideration of authority within worldwide Anglicanism, and the extent to which decisions made in one branch of the church affect other Anglicans.
While some Anglican churches, such as the Episcopal Church in this country and the Anglican Church of Canada, ordain women as priests, the majority do not. Some, including the Church of England, have forbidden women ordained here from performing priestly functions in British churches, although men ordained in this country would be recognized as priests there.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church with its pope, Anglicanism has no central authority. The archbishop of Canterbury is considered the "first among equals" among Anglican prelates, but lacks authority to impose any common ruling on the churches. Individual Anglican churches, many of them the fruits of missionary activity of the Church of England that went hand in hand with British colonialism, are fiercely autonomous.
The primates'meeting involves only heads of the churches -- archbishops or presiding bishops -- in contrast to the Lambeth Conference, which brings together all the bishops from Anglican bodies throughout the world every 10 years. A third, more broadly representative international body is the Anglican Consultative Council, made up of bishops, priests and lay persons.
None of the three groups has legislative powers, but each provides channels for exchange of information and views. The international bodies "do their best to keep the churches in communication with one another," explained Marian Kelleran, of Alexandria, the immediate past chairman of the Consultative Council.
She added that for church heads in "isolated places," who must function in situations of political repression and economic hardship, "it is important to have an opportunity to get together and to have a sense of the oneness of Anglicanism."