LONDON -- The leaders of the Anglican Communion came together here yesterday from all over the world for a closed-door, emergency meeting aimed at preventing a bitter doctrinal split over the issue of homosexuality in the church.
Thirty-seven of 38 Anglican primates representing 160 different countries were invited for a two-day meeting by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to confront the crisis that erupted this summer over the US Episcopal Church's election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.
Two other incidents have also fueled an increasingly hostile debate: the June 2002 decision by the diocese of New Westminster in Canada to authorize blessings for same-sex couples, and last summer's divisive attempt to appoint theologian Jeffrey John, who is gay but celibate, as bishop of Reading, England.
A conservative faction of American Episcopalians angrily reacted to these developments by calling on Anglican leaders, especially conservative ones in developing countries, to punish liberal American church leaders who supported the election of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire.
Robinson, a divorced father of two who now lives with a gay partner, is scheduled to be consecrated in a ceremony on Nov. 2, which would officially make him the first openly gay bishop to be appointed by any mainstream Christian denomination.
That controversy has set the stage in London for a clash of cultures that some observers and specialists say could leave a split down the middle of the federation of churches known as Anglicanism.
"What needs to happen here is that Rowan Williams needs to sit down with his 36 brothers in Christ and explain what it is to deal with conflict as Anglicans, to be able to agree to disagree," said the Rev. Daniel Webster, director of communications for the Episcopal diocese of Utah, who stood at the entrance to the Lambeth Palace, seat of the archbishop of Canterbury since medieval times, where the prelates gathered.
"We are in communion with the archbishop, but we do not bear allegiance to him," Webster added. "We are not subject to his rulings. There is nothing binding here."
But if the talks turn nasty and the conservative factions walk out, Webster said the "loose family ties" that hold the Anglican Communion together could "quite possibly come undone."
The Episcopal Church, the American branch of Anglicanism with 2 million members, is a relatively small part of the worldwide communion of about 75 million Anglicans.
And even though a majority of the Episcopal Church's General Convention voted for Robinson as bishop, the election of an openly gay bishop remains out of step with the greater majority of the world communion, church leaders say.
The conservatives in America who oppose Robinson's election have a strident and aggressive ally in the powerful Anglican primate of Nigeria, Peter Akinola. Of the communion's primates -- the primate of the Philippines was unable to attend -- the conservative core emerges out of Africa and South America.
Akinola has condemned homosexuality as "satanic" and an "aberration unknown even in animal relations."
If there is a schism, it is widely believed that Akinola would be the driving force behind it.
The challenge for Williams, the primate of the Church of England who is considered the "first among equals" in the communion, will be to convince church leaders that a schism would hurt everyone and that they should reflect on the issue before any decisions are made.
Said the Rev. George Bush, pastor of St. Mary-Le-Bow church in central London: "It's always wise to step back. But even if we do that this time, this issue is not going to go away."
Williams, who has always expressed liberal views on homosexuality, has put himself in a difficult position since he persuaded John to stand down as bishop of Reading. That, many liberals feel, has compromised Williams's leadership ability.
"The archbishop is in a remarkably difficult situation. He actually looks weak," said the Rev. Judith Maltby a professor of 17th century church history at Oxford University and a chaplain at Oxford's Corpus Christi College.
Maltby said Williams's handling of the John controversy, amid threats of rebellions and the withholding of funds by conservatives within the church, sent "the message that bullying works."
The ordination of women as bishops in America and South Africa and other countries also caused a deep divide in recent years.
England still does not have any women who are ordained bishops.
But the Rev. Dr. Harriet Harris, chaplain of Wadham College at Oxford University, said the issue of homosexuality has "greater potential for causing a schism."
"The level of debate is visceral," Harris added. "It comes down to reactions, fears. It's not on the level of rational debate."
Before the primates gathered at Lambeth Palace, they sipped coffee and chatted in their clerical garb in the lobby of the Days Inn where they are staying. A bus then transported them a few hundred yards down the road through the gates of the palace along the River Thames.
The presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church USA, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, who supported Robinson's election, moved among his fellow Anglican leaders. They greeted each other warmly and shook each other's hands.
"We have great respect for one another and affection, and that will be brought to this debate," he said, as he boarded the bus with his other prelates.
But at a prayer service at St. Matthew's Church in London, just across the Lambeth Bridge from the palace where the prelates met, scores of local Anglican chaplains and lay activists came to hear a sermon that thundered with emotion and a sense of just how bitter this debate has become.
Walter Malchulu, the former archbishop of central Africa, made a comparison between those who want to exclude clerics who are openly gay and the "apartheid era." He criticized what he called "bouncers" and added that "there is no room for that in the church."