In a statement issued at the end of their meeting in Windsor Great Park, the 34 primates of the Communion, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, said: "Within the Church itself there are those whose pattern of sexual expression is at variance with the received Christian moral tradition but whose lives in other respects demonstrate the marks of genuine Christian character. The issues are deep and complex. They do not always admit of easy, instant answers.
"A careful process of reflecting on contemporary forms of behaviour in the light of scriptures and the Christian moral tradition is required."
The statement was greeted with delight by the homosexual lobby within the Church and with dismay by traditionalists.
The Rev Richard Kirker, of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said: "At last the Anglican Communion has given a signal that it is prepared to initiate a process which will inevitably lead to the recognition of same-sex loving relationships. The Church will be immeasurably enriched by having absorbed the insights flowing from the greater self-confidence now so evident among lesbian and gay Christians worldwide."
The Archdeacon of York, the Venerable George Austin, said the statement undermined all Christian morality. "It is an utterly spurious argument. What about a thief or a murderer or a wife-beater who in all other respects lives an utterly holy and Christian life? Do we then say that murder and wife abuse and theft are all right?"
The Anglican Communion consists of 35 Churches, all self-governing, with 64,000 congregations in 164 countries.
The issue of sexual morality is most pressing in the US, where the Church is approaching civil war and where one bishop has been formally charged with heresy for ordaining an openly gay man; nearly 70 have signed a statement in his favour; and more than 100 bishops have condemned homosexual practice.
In East Africa, where the problem is of polygamy, bishops are reluctant to impose monogamy on societies where a convert may already have several wives.
The Primates' meeting, held every three years, is an attempt to synchronise the operation of these disparate churches; three of which have women bishops, while nearly half will not even recognise women priests.
"We invite every part of the Church to face questions about sexuality with honesty and integrity, avoiding unnecessary conflict and polarisation, in a spirit of faithful seeking to understand more clearly the will of God," the statement continued.
The statement will offend evangelicals because it claims that the traditional biblical approach, which would condemn all sex outside of the first, monogamous heterosexual marriage, is not the only one possible to faithful Christians.
But many of the Churches will not accept homosexual practice, though some influential voices, including that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, have been more sympathetic. Though the statement does not endorse homosexual acts, it stops a long way short of condemning them, and commends the process of dialogue, which is understood to mean one of gradual accommodation to the demands of gays and lesbians.
The Primates all signed a message of support to the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev David Hope, who announced he was celibate, but sexually ambiguous.Reuse content