Leading article: The Church would do well to learn from Elizabeth I

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The Independent Online

Powerful centrifugal forces are tearing at the body of the global Anglican Communion. Bishops in Africa are still up in arms over the consecration five years ago of the openly homosexual Gene Robinson as a bishop by the American Episcopal church. Many are boycotting this month's Lambeth conference over the perceived failure of the head of the Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to discipline the American church. Instead, these disgruntled bishops attended an alternative gathering of conservatives in Jerusalem last month. Talk of a breakaway is growing louder.

There is discord within the mother church of Anglicanism, too. The Church of England has already voted to permit the ordination of female bishops. At this weekend's General Synod, some 1,300 clergy threatened to leave the Church unless guaranteed the oversight of male bishops alone. Many hardliners are scandalised by the recent celebration in a London church of a civil union between two gay clergymen – an event many interpreted as a traditional marriage ceremony.

This liberal-conservative split reflects larger tensions about the mission of Anglicanism. One traditionalist tried to put forward a motion at the Synod calling for an explicit policy of converting people of other faiths. This won the support of a quarter of the delegates, although it was quashed by the leadership.

It might well be impossible to prevent a break-up of the Church's traditional governing structure. The opposing forces within Anglicanism might prove too strong. And it would certainly be a mistake for the liberal leadership of the Church to jettison the principle of equality for women and homosexuals in a desperate pursuit of a deal. Yet the Archbishop, Dr Rowan Williams, is surely right at least to attempt to hold the ring. Unity is preferable to a schism. If a deal acceptable to all sides can be achieved, it should be energetically and tirelessly pursued. And it is by no means an impossible task. The Church of England's leadership is attempting to hammer out a deal on special arrangements for those Anglicans who feel that their consciences would be offended by being preached to by female bishops.

Appeasing the hardliners will be difficult. And a rival grouping, headed by female clergy, is also warning that it will not back any deal that proposes discriminatory laws. Yet there would seem to be a way through. Those who have a problem with the authority of women bishops should be encouraged to attend churches under the control of male bishops. This kind of discreet, ad hoc "parish-swapping" already takes place in areas where there are women priests.

The issue of African objections to homosexuality in the American church is more problematic. The ideological chasm between these two wings of Anglicanism will be very difficult to bridge. The church leadership would seem to have no option but to float the idea of a looser association that permits doctrinal differences on the ordination of female and gay bishops.

The prize of unity is worth fighting for. The Anglican Communion can still be a force for good in a volatile world. And if this major Christian denomination manages to accommodate such differences of opinion, it could provide a stimulating example to other religions experiencing similar tensions.

Perhaps we should remember history. The Church of England was reformed in the 16th century with an extraordinary amount of doctrinal compromise. The task of reconciling England's former Catholics with its hardline Protestants makes today's disagreement look trivial in comparison. Elizabeth I said she did not desire to "make windows into men's souls". Global Anglicanism needs that kind of humane pragmatism today.