Invitations to Lambeth 1998 were sent out four years early, in 1994, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey

There's going to be a lot of talk about the 2008 Lambeth Conference in the coming months. Will the bishops of Canada and the US be invited to it, or won't they?

As Lewis Carroll might put it, "Will they, won't they, will they, won't they, will they, won't they join the dance?"

Why does the Lambeth Conference matter? Actually, the conference doesn't matter so much as being invited to it.

The Conference itself, a gathering every ten years or so of all the world's Anglican bishops (now probably 900 or so), has no legislative power. It's an advisory body.

But being invited to it - that's another matter. It seems to do with whether you're in or you're out of the Anglican Communion.

The Anglican Communion described in 1930 at the Lambeth Conference: "...a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See [Diocese] of Canterbury..."

In other words, "dioceses, provinces, or regional Churches" are in the Anglican Communion if they are "duly constituted" and Canterbury wants to be in communion with them.

In practice, how you can tell whether you're still on the good side of the See of Canterbury seems to work out as being invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Lambeth Conference.

It's up to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, to decide who to invite. Up till now at least, the Archbishops of Canterbury have invited everyone, except in very rare instances of competing bishops in the same geographical area.

There's nothing said about heads of the various national Anglican Churches, the Primates, helping the Archbishop of Canterbury decide who's to come - although the present Archbishop of Canterbury in some statements seems to have suggested he might seek advice.

To turn to history, it was North Americans who got us into this strange situation in the first place.

It was an American bishop from Vermont who originally had the idea of a Lambeth Conference. But it was Canadian Bishops, who in 1865 urgently asked for the then 144 bishops in the Anglican Communion to meet at Lambeth in 1867.

The presenting issue came out of an African situation. Bishop John William Colenso, first Anglican bishop of Natal, South Africa, said he wasn't sure native converts should be forced to give up polygamy, and he contested the doctrine of eternal punishment and the Eucharist being a precondition to salvation.

The Bishop of Cape Town tried to discipline the Bishop of Natal - excommunicated him at one point - but the Privy Council in London found Cape Town had no authority to interfere with Natal.

As very conservative colonials, the Canadian bishops were concerned that the legal decision ""should leave us governed by canons different from those in force in England and Ireland, and thus cause us to drift into the status of an independent branch of the Roman Catholic Church."

The 1867 Lambeth Conference called for the appointment of a replacement for Bishop Colenso. The Bishop of Cape Town appointed a rival bishop, who took the title of Bishop of Pietermaritzburg. But civil courts continued to support Colenso, and after a while he got his diocese back.

Bishop Michael Ingham was among 749 bishops invited and present at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. This is just a small portion of them from their official group photo.

This all caused great consternation in England, with liberals supporting the Bishop of Natal, conservatives supporting the Bishop of Cape Town.

As time went on, Bishop Colenso of Natal became an even stronger supporter of Zulu rights, and criticized both the British and the Boers for their treatment of these aboriginals. Very unpopular with whites then, he's seen as visionary now.

Check the website of the Archbishop of Canterbury and you'll find an article praising the heretical Bishop Colenso as a pioneering prelate who should be remembered "for his real commitment to the culture of Zulus and his great desire to present the Christian faith to them."

So we have had, after 140 years, a complete turnaround. From conservative Canadian Anglicans calling for a Lambeth Conference because what was going on in Africa was too liberal - to liberal Canadian Anglicans, like Primate Andrew Hutchison, asking that the Lambeth Conference NOT be held because what's coming out of African is too conservative.

But this time it appears the Archbishop of Canterbury is not taking Canadian advice. The invitations are going out, Archbishop Williams declared. To whom, we don't know.