Anglican leader extolls unity on poverty, AIDS

Benoni, South Africa - The spiritual leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans said on Tuesday a split over gay clergy would not distract the church from battling AIDS, poverty and other problems in the developing world.

"The tensions are perfectly real, but one of the remarkable things is the willingness to work together on development goals," Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told reporters outside Johannesburg at the outset of a visit to South Africa.

Williams, who highlighted the AIDS pandemic as one of the key challenges facing the Anglican Communion in Africa, was speaking just weeks after divisions over homosexuality sparked a near revolt at a major church summit in Tanzania.

Conservative Anglican leaders, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which form the majority of the church's followers, have been up in arms since the 2003 consecration of openly gay U.S. bishop Gene Robinson.

Their disapproval came to a head last month when a group of archbishops refused to take Holy Communion with Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori at the summit in Tanzania over her backing for Robinson and same-sex unions.

Jefferts Schori leads the 2.4 million-strong U.S. Episcopal Church, the American wing of the Anglican Communion.

Williams, a once-liberal theologian who has moved steadily toward conservative views as he tries to keep his church from splitting, has defended Schori's right to face her detractors while also trying to appease traditionalists.

Anglican conservatives say homosexuality is immoral and the ordination of gays flouts biblical doctrine. Liberals have argued that Anglicanism historically tolerates diverse views.

The church's grappling over the issue has mirrored to some extent a similar debate brewing in the Catholic Church, which forbids the ordination of gay clergy and opposes same-sex unions.

Catholics in North America and Western Europe, including priests, tend to take a more liberal view of gay rights than their counterparts in the developing world, a divergence that has prompted both concern and disapproval from Rome.

Catholic leaders have watched the ongoing debate in the Anglican church with interest because it has the potential to derail talks on a possible rapprochement between the two churches, which split some 500 years ago.

Williams, who is in South Africa to attend a conference on the church's contribution to the battle against poverty and HIV, said on Tuesday the ordination of women was the main practical hurdle to a reunification.

The Catholic Church forbids women priests.