A 13-year standoff over gay rights and same-sex marriages could conclude on Monday with the first steps towards a permanent schism within the 85-million-strong global Anglican Communion.
African church leaders have threatened to walk out at the start of a week-long meeting of 38 national primates in Canterbury which begins on Monday to try to resolve a long-running dispute triggered by the consecration of an openly gay bishop in the United States.
Leaders of conservative African churches have insisted that the topic “to restore godly order” should be the first under discussion in Canterbury – while more than 100 Anglicans, including the Bishop of Buckingham, retaliated at the weekend by calling for the Church to apologise for its treatment of gay and lesbian Christians.
The open letter said the Anglican Church had “made them feel second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God, often abandoned and alone”.
With both sides entrenched and with no sign of compromise, “reaching the end of the week with the majority of primates there” would count as a success, a senior Church of England source said.
One conservative critic compared the Anglican Communion to the Titanic, holed beneath the waterline.
The largely African- and American-led opposition to same sex marriage and gay clergy has insisted that US and Canadian churches be brought into line as the price of the continuing unity of the Anglican Church.
Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, the head of the Church of Uganda, said: “If such discipline and godly order is not restored, then I will… withdraw from the meeting.” Primates of countries including Kenya and Nigeria are expected to join the potential walkout.
A compromise to the break-up of the communion has been mooted, which could see the common doctrine of Anglicanism replaced by a looser confederation of national churches linked to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The conservative wing has already said that suggestion is unworkable, and a failure to resolve the issue this week could trigger the lengthy process for a permanent split, separating fast-growing conservative communions in Africa and South America from those with more liberal policies towards the gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
In a reflection of the discord, the different sides will reportedly be offered the opportunity to pray at separate venues during the meeting.
The Church of England said the door would remain open for any national church to rejoin in the event of a split.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said: “As we approach the primates’ meeting we need to recognise that we’re going to be dealing with some very, very difficult issues – within the life of the Anglican Communion but also hugely difficult issues that are affecting the whole church of Christ and our whole world.”
The meeting will bring together for the first time the heads of both the US Episcopal Church and its rival conservative breakaway, the Anglican Church in North America (Acna), created in 2009 following the consecration of the openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.
In a message to his followers on the eve of the meeting, the head of the Acna, Archbishop Foley Beach, said: “What is at stake?… It is the reputation of Jesus Christ.
“It is the souls of millions of people who are being taught a false gospel and are being led into spiritual and sexual bondage under the pretence of the Christian faith.”
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