Three gay rights protesters say they were punched while being forcibly removed yesterday from a conference at which rebel bishops were trying to attract recruits to a network for Anglicans who believe all same-sex relationships should be condemned.
The protest, led by Peter Tatchell, comes as the Anglican communion goes through what is possibly its greatest crisis in 450 years, with many senior clergy predicting that a split in the Church is almost inevitable.
Yesterday's meeting, at All Souls Church, London, followed a conference in Jerusalem of Anglican bishops from around the world who are defying the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, because they believe he has failed to follow the biblical line on homosexuality.
The General Synod of the Church of England is also in danger of being split this weekend in an equally passionate dispute over whether to permit women bishops.
"We were punched and physically ejected," Mr Tatchell said yesterday. "We were very polite. We folded up our banners and tried to walk into the conference. They did not say a word to us, they just started punching and shoving."
After they were turned out, the protesters unfolded banners with slogans saying "Church of Hate! Stop Crucifying Queers!", "Defend gays, fight Christian bigots" and "Anglicans Repent Your Homophobia".
One of the protesters, Kizza Musinuzi, is a Ugandan Christian. The other two – Mr Tatchell and Brett Lock, from the gay rights group Outrage – say they were "showing solidarity with our gay Christian brothers and sisters".
The conference, which was attended by 750 clergy and church wardens, was addressed by Archbishop Orombi, Archbishop Gregory Venables from South America and Archbishop Peter Jensen from Sydney, who had all taken part in the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem, a rival summit to the Lambeth Conference, which opens in Canterbury this month.
The rebels are setting up a global network for Anglicans opposed to the Church's recognition of gay relationships and women bishops, to be headed by a "primates' council".
The Bishop of Durham, the Right Rev Tom Wright, the Church's leading evangelical scholar, warnedthat their proposal to create parallel dioceses to undercut liberal bishops could lead to an endless series of schisms.
"It offers a blank cheque to anyone who wants to defy a bishop for whatever reasons, even if the bishop in question is scrupulously orthodox," he said.
To add to the problems, more than 1,300 clergy have warned in a letter to Dr Williams that they will defect if women are consecrated as bishops. The issue is due to be decided on Monday, at the end of a four-day meeting of the General Synod in York.
The Archbishop of Canterbury's office said yesterday it would not comment as it did not want to pre-empt the General Synod.
Peter Jensen is a controversial figure in Australia, where it is feared his conservative stance will split the Church. He became Archbishop of Sydney in 2001. He has infuriated other Australian clerics by planting congregations following his own orthodoxy in areas outside his diocese. It is reported that he has offered episcopal oversight to conserv-atives in other countries.