Sydney primate warns of church split on gays

Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen has issued the strongest warning yet that conservatives are ready to split with the Anglican Church over gay bishops.

Jensen, along with traditionalist primates from Africa and Asia, is one of the fiercest critics of the U.S. Episcopal Church's decision to ordain openly gay bishop Gene Robinson.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the world's 77 million Anglicans, has been struggling at a week-long summit of church leaders in Northern Ireland to keep the fractured communion together.

But his call for calm may have fallen on deaf ears.

"The idea that we break from one another is a painful one, and very, very sorrowful," Jensen said on Thursday.

"But there do come times when the authority of the Bible is at stake -- and this is one of those times -- where to stay together becomes a great difficulty," he told BBC Radio.

Williams concedes that the gay bishop crisis has badly damaged Anglicanism's fragile unity. "There will be no cost-free outcome from this," he has said.

The crisis erupted in 2003 with the Robinson's ordination in the United States, home to 2.3 million Anglicans, known as Episcopalians.

The decision enraged traditionalists, particularly in Africa, who demanded the Americans repent and are now studying ways to redraw the Anglican world map to exclude liberal provinces and put U.S. conservatives under foreign bishops.

African church leaders fear that if Anglicanism takes a lenient line on homosexuality, its followers will desert its pews for more conservative Christian churches or Islam.

Jensen indicated that the patience of conservative clerics was wearing thin.

"I hope we can stay together. I am hoping there will be reconciliation and a turning back again to what the Bible says," he said.

"But in the final analysis, as in the past, as the Baptists had to break away from the Church of England, there are times where strong views are held and where division does occur."

Last year's Windsor Report on maintaining church unity urged the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) to apologise for ordaining Robinson without consulting other Anglican provinces first.

But the Episcopalians only agreed to express "sincere regret for the pain, the hurt and the damage caused ... by certain actions of our church." Conservative Anglicans rejected this as a half-measure that ducked the real issue.

The religious summit is to end on Friday with the release of a communique expected to indicate just how deep the divisions now are.