NEWRY, Northern Ireland – The issue of homosexuality threatens to split the Anglican Communion (search) and the rift cannot be resolved easily, the archbishop of Canterbury said Friday, a day after church leaders asked the U.S. and Canadian churches to temporarily withdraw from a key council.
Rowan Williams (search), the spiritual leader of the 77 million-member communion, spoke after a five-day crisis meeting to discuss the election of a gay bishop in the United States and the blessing of same-sex unions there and in Canada, which have precipitated the most serious rift in the body's history.
"We still face the possibility of division, of course we do," Williams said. "That's not going to go away.
"Any lasting solution, I think, will require people to say somewhere along the line, 'Yes, we were wrong.'"
Williams said people who had acted in good faith might later realize "'I hadn't counted the cost.' And that applies in a number of different contexts here."
His comments came after the 35 primates, or church national leaders, meeting near Belfast on Thursday asked the U.S. Episcopal Church (search) and the Anglican Church of Canada (search) to withdraw from the Anglican Consultative Council for three years — a move some feared could be the first step toward a permanent split in the communion.
The crisis erupted when the U.S. Episcopal Church consecrated V. Gene Robinson (search) as bishop of New Hampshire in November 2003. Robinson lives with his longtime male partner. Conservatives also have criticized North American dioceses for allowing blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
The two churches also were invited to explain to the council in June the theological reasoning behind Robinson's consecration and the decision by one Canadian diocese to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions.
Thursday's communique said Anglican teaching on sexuality had "been seriously undermined by the recent developments in North America." A 1998 resolution adopted by all Anglican bishops declared that gay sex was "incompatible with Scripture" and opposed gay ordinations and same-sex blessings.
Some conservative Anglicans hailed the statement as a victory.
"The clarity with which the primates have spoken is breathtaking," said Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, a leader of the conservative wing of the Episcopal Church.
"Individual provinces do have the freedom to act as they see fit under their various constitutions, but the exercise of that freedom beyond agreed teaching and practice will imperil their standing and participation in the communion," he said.
Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, head of the Episcopal Church, stressed that discussions continued. The communique "was written with a view to making room for a wide variety of perspectives," he said.
Andrew Hutchison, the Anglican Archbishop of Canada, said there had been a great deal of warmth and support at the meeting — although he confirmed that some of the primates had refused to participate in communion services with the North Americans.
The withdrawal request was welcomed in Nigeria, which has the second-largest Anglican community after Britain.
"Asking them to quit is the right decision. And they should stay out if they won't change their ways," said Chika Ezenwe, a 44-year-old Anglican businessman in Lagos.
An overwhelming majority of Nigeria's 17.5 million Anglicans back the strong condemnation of gay priests and same-sex marriage by their Primate Peter Akinola.
In their statement, the Anglican leaders called on the U.S. and Canadian churches to "voluntarily withdraw their members from the Anglican Consultative Council for the period leading up to the next Lambeth Conference," an international Anglican gathering to be held in 2008.
The North Americans have been asked not to attend the next meeting of the consultative council, a body of bishops, priests and lay people from national Anglican churches who meet and consult in between the once-a-decade Lambeth Conferences.
Archbishop of Perth Peter Carnley, the primate of Australia's Anglican church, rejected the idea that the communion was headed toward a collapse and dismissed suggestions of "a kind of loose-knit federation."
He said the purpose of Thursday's request was "to create some space."
Conservatives who lead the Anglican Communion Network, which represents dissenting Episcopal dioceses and churches in the United States, argued that the primates' request meant that the two North American churches "have been effectively suspended" from the communion.
But James Naughton, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and a supporter of Robinson's, disagreed, calling the report an "elegant compromise." He said Episcopalians could easily accept temporary withdrawal from the council, if it would create more time for Anglicans to find ways to remain unified.
Bishop Henry Orombi of Uganda said he was willing to listen carefully to the views of homosexuals, as he would to any other people.
"I proclaim the good news, and the good news has power to change," he said.