A split in the Anglican Church over the issue of homosexuality “would not be a disaster, but it would be a failure”, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.
Speaking ahead of a meeting of Church leaders, Justin Welby said he wanted “reconciliation”, but that would mean “finding ways to disagree well”.
Views range from liberals in the US – who do accept openly gay clergy – to conservatives in Africa, who refuse to.
There are fears of a permanent schism in the third largest Christian Church.
The Anglican Communion is made up of some 80 million people around the world in more than 160 countries, many of whom look to Archbishop Welby, the church’s most senior bishop, for leadership.
Ever since the liberal Episcopal Church in America consecrated Canon Gene Robinson – a divorced man in a gay relationship – as bishop of New Hampshire in November 2003, sniping within the Communion has intensified.
Conservative primates say the Church must stick to its Biblical roots.
But attitudes in many African countries and elsewhere – where active homosexuality remains a crime – make it hard to find common ground, with strong opposition from some churches to gay marriage or openly gay bishops.
Archbishop Welby told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “A schism would not be a disaster… God is bigger than our failures, but it would be a failure.
“It would not be good if the Church is unable to set an example to the world of showing how we can love one another and disagree profoundly, because we are brought together by Jesus Christ, not by our own choice.”
There is concern that African primates could stage a walk out from the meeting in Canterbury.
Archbishop Welby continued: “Certainly I want reconciliation, but reconciliation doesn’t always mean agreement – in fact, it very seldom does. It means finding ways to disagree well and that’s what we’ve got to do this week.
“There’s nothing I can do if people decide that they want to leave the room. It won’t split the communion.”
He added: “The Church is a family and you remain a family even if you go your separate ways.”
A spokesman for the archbishop added the meeting would be an opportunity for national churches to decide their approach to the next Lambeth Conference – the once-in-a-decade gathering of the worldwide Anglican bishops.
The meeting’s agenda is also expected to include the issues of religiously-motivated violence, the protection of children and vulnerable adults, and the environment.
A letter sent recently by more than 100 senior Anglicans to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York urging them to ensure the Church repents for “discriminating” against lesbian and gay Christians will be discussed too. It called for the Church to acknowledge members around the world have been treated as “second-class citizens”. BBC