Anglicans hope to refocus church amid gay row

Cape Town, South Africa - The worldwide Anglican church is looking to re-focus attention on pressing global issues of poverty and disease after being sidetracked by a damaging internal rift over gay priests, bishops said on Thursday.

"The Anglican church has always been at the heart of social justice issues ... but like any family sometimes there is a row, and a row tends to make loud noises," South Africa's Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane told reporters in Cape Town, referring to a furore in the church over homosexuality.

Ndungane is leading a steering committee tasked with preparing the 77 million-strong church for a major conference next year in South Africa on poverty and AIDS.

But the meeting comes at a difficult time, with the church deeply split over homosexuality following the consecration two years ago of a gay bishop in New Hampshire.

Gene Robinson is believed to be the first bishop known to be openly in a same-sex relationship in the 450-year history of the Anglican Communion, which groups autonomous national churches around the globe.

Almost half of the world's Anglican archbishops, with Nigeria's conservative Peter Akinola at the fore, have mutinied over the issue -- spurring fears that the world's second largest organised church after Roman Catholicism might split.

Ndungane, who is seen as more liberal than most Anglican leaders in Africa, said the church must now return to its calling.

"What has happened in our communion is that some people, who happen to be few in number, make the loudest noise," he said.

"In my travels around the communion, I would like to think that the majority of Anglicans want to get on with the business of the church."

Ndungane said it was "sinful" that in a rich world 800 million people still went without food every day and that 120 children did not attend school. He said the world's leaders lacked the political will to conquer these problems.

While the Anglican hierarchy has worked to heal the rift over gay ordination and has appealed for unity, issues of sex continue to cloud the church's work on global problems.

Orris Walker, American bishop from Long Island, said it was hoped the conference would sensitise the Anglican congregation to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, a set of United Nations targets to cut poverty and disease.

"We have been perturbed that the church has been side-tracked by internal debates that have sapped its energy and we wanted to call the church back to mission and ministry," he said.