DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania - Leaders of the world's 77 million Anglicans opened a crucial meeting yesterday as the church struggles to reconcile Scripture and homosexuality, with the American wing coming under increasing pressure to reconsider its liberal stance on gays.
Splits between Anglican liberals and conservatives have been growing for years, but reached a crisis in 2003 when the Episcopal Church - the U.S. wing of the global Anglican Communion - consecrated its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The problems mounted last year with the election of Katharine Jefferts Schori, who supports ordaining gays and is the first female leader of the U.S. church.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the communion, has struggled to resolve one of the biggest disputes in Christianity in centuries, but he lacks any direct authority to force a compromise.
Canon Jim Rosenthal of the Anglican Communion said the debate over the rift is expected to be highly charged. "The basic issue here is what to do about those who decided they don't want to stay in the main Anglican body," he said.
Conservative Anglicans have formed a rival network in the U.S., under the leadership of Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, who has called the acceptance of gay relationships a "satanic attack" on the church.
Archbishop Akinola gave a letter this week to Archbishop Williams, which is believed to demand concessions by the liberals to head off a schism. Africa is home to half the world's Anglicans and is dominated by conservative leaders.
Canon Rosenthal confirmed the letter's existence, but said its contents were private.
Bishop Martyn Minns of Fairfax, Virginia - one of the most prominent U.S. clerics to leave the American church for Archbishop Akinola's group -- said yesterday it would be best for the U.S. church to "back off and reconsider" its stance on gays. But, he said, that was highly unlikely.
"It's been tragic the amount of time and energy that has been spent on this issue that was initiated by the American church," he said.
The creation of Archbishop Akinola's group, called the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, has been the most dramatic step by conservatives to encourage a breakaway Episcopal group that would be outside Bishop Jefferts Schori's oversight.
An eventual breakup of the communion would be the most stunning fallout from struggles over gay relationships that also have gripped Roman Catholics, Lutherans and others. The Anglican fellowship was founded in the 16th century by King Henry VIII and spread worldwide by the British Empire.
However, Bishop Jefferts Schori, the head of the U.S. church, was not prepared to back down, said Canon Robert Williams, an aide.