The Anglican Church was threatened yesterday with a global schism after Western leaders were accused of being "culturally deaf" over the appointment of the first openly gay bishop.
The heads of congregations in South America, Asia and Africa railed against the move to select Canon Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and were considering breaking off relations with the US branch of the church last night.
The Archbishop of Canterbury immediately sought to head off civil war within the Anglican Communion with a call for calm in the wake of the appointment that has angered conservatives.
But Archbishop Greg Venables, primate of several South American countries, said the row could lead to a break-up of the church with the Archbishop of Canterbury heading the northern hemisphere and with a separate representative for the south.
"There's a threat, it's a very serious one," he said. "The primates of the global south are mobilising themselves." He said the leaders of the 70 million Anglicans in the north were "culturally deaf".
The move leaves the Archbishop of Canterbury with one of the biggest crises of his tenure. In a statement released after the decision, Dr Rowan Williams said "difficult times" lay ahead and the appointment would have a significant impact.
"It is too early to say what the result of that will be," he said. "It is my hope that the church in America and the rest of the Anglican Communion will have the opportunity to consider this development before significant and irrevocable decisions are made in response."
In an apparent criticism of the decision by the US Episcopal Church, he went on: "I have said before that we need as a church to be very careful about making decisions for our own part of the world which constrain the church elsewhere."
However, there were few signs that Dr Williams's calls for restraint were being heeded last night. Canon Robinson said he prayed the landmark decision would not lead to a schism. "I certainly have been praying and will be praying every day that such a thing does not happen," said Canon Robinson, 56, who is divorced and has two children. He has been living with his male partner for 13 years.
Tensions had already been running high over the planned appointment of the celibate gay priest Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. He finally declined the post last month after talks with church leaders concerned by a threat from the Church of Nigeria to break away over the issue.
The threat was reissued yesterday from church leaders on three continents. Earlier this year, they severed ties with a Canadian diocese that authorised same-sex blessings.
The leader of the Anglican Church of West Malaysia, the Right Rev Lim Cheng Ean, said bishops from the region may discuss cutting ties with the US church at a meeting next week. "Practising homosexuality is culturally and legally not acceptable here," he said.
John Dayal, vice-president of the All India Catholics Union, also criticised the decision. "The election of a gay bishop is a blatant aggravation of societal norms, and in India it certainly will not be acceptable," he said.
In Uganda, the Rev Jackson Turyagyenda, an Anglican spokesman, said his church was "very disappointed".
The Most Rev Peter Jensen, the conservative Archbishop of Sydney, said the new gay bishop would not be welcome in his diocese and urged opponents in the US to fight the decision by withholding contributions to church coffers.
Richard Kirker, of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in London, welcomed the vote, praising the courage of the Episcopal Church.
'Few will find this so troublesome that they cannot stay'
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
"It is my hope that the church in America and the rest of the Anglican Communion will have the opportunity to consider this development before significant and irrevocable decisions are made in response. I have said before that we need as a church to be very careful about making decisions for our own part of the world which constrain the church elsewhere."
David Phillips, conservative Church Society
"We consider the Episcopal Church of the United States has put itself outside the fellowship of faithful Christians. They have created a schism. They have shown they are pursuing a religion that is not Christianity."
Canon Gene Robinson, the Anglican Church's first openly gay bishop
"I have great confidence in the Archbishop of Canterbury ... and all of our churches that somehow we can heal whatever rifts show themselves in the coming days, months and years. Any time anyone decides to leave the church it's a very sad thing. I ... will be praying every day that such a thing does not happen ... I am certain there will be a few for whom this will be so troublesome they cannot stay, but ... I believe the entire Episcopal Church will do everything we can to work with these folks."
Archbishop Greg Venables, Primate of the Southern Cone (South America)
"The primates of the global south are mobilising themselves. There is an insistence that the church is not manipulated by the white Anglo-Saxon side but by the rather more consensual way of doing it."
Richard Kirker, Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement
"Different parts of the Anglican Communion tend to travel at different speeds. [This] gives Rowan Williams an opportunity to welcome the decision of an influential part of the Anglican Communion."
Dr Mouneer Anis, the Bishop of Egypt
"We cannot comprehend a decision to elect as bishop a man who has forsaken his wife and the vows he made to her in order to live in a sexual relationship with another man outside the bonds of marriage."