Gay-marriage split would hurt church: top Anglican

Toronto, Canada - Everyone would lose if the Anglican Church splits in two over the issue of gay marriage, the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Monday.

Dr. Rowan Williams, head of the worldwide Anglican Church, told a news conference in Toronto it was worth trying to preserve the unity of the church as long as possible.

"We may come to a point where people feel there are irreconcilable differences," said Williams. "But when there is an overlap between human rights and what the church can endorse, it does no good to isolate ideas... If the Anglican church divides, everyone will lose."

Williams has been walking a fine line of late in the raging debate over gay rights within the Anglican Church.

Last month, leaders of the U.S. Episcopal Church rejected a demand by conservative bishops for the American communion to give up authority over parishes that wish to remain closed to same-sex unions.

That irked several influential bishops in Africa and elsewhere who have staked out a conservative stance on homosexuality, which one has described as "an aberration unknown even in animal relationships."

The archbishop was quick to distance himself from that perspective on Monday, saying "I have consistently opposed any idea that gay and lesbian people are anything less than human and fully baptized members of the church."

But Williams also cautioned against any movement to muffle the conservative voice within the church.

"It is not just a case of nice people who want to include gay people in the church and nasty ones who do not," said Williams. "It is a question of what marriage is according to church doctrine and what types of behaviors that the church has the power to bless."

As the argument builds, discussion within the church has turned to a possible restructuring of sorts.

A "pastoral scheme" proposed by the Episcopal Church, the U.S. wing of the Anglican communion, would see individual dioceses having the option of aligning themselves with the church's more conservative elements via a regional representative to traditionalist bishops.

That idea has Williams concerned that the 77-million strong Anglican Church is close to ripping itself to pieces.

"There is a very deep political element to all of this," said Williams of the diverse range of opinions on gay marriage around the globe. "The danger is that people feel like someone else is making a decision which they then have to live by."

Same-sex marriage is legal in Canada, though religions are not obliged to perform such ceremonies.

Williams' visit to Toronto, his first in seven years, coincides with a meeting of senior bishops in Canada. The archbishop will lead a one-day retreat of that group as they prepare to elect the new primate for the church in Canada and begin discussions ahead of the church's general synod in Winnipeg this June.

"The communion has to face the fact that there is a division in our church and it's getting deeper and more bitter," said Williams. "I think the goal of maintaining the highest degree of unity has to be the number one concern."

Williams shot down rumors of a rift with the U.S. Episcopals, saying he will attend the fall meeting of the U.S. House of Bishops set for New Orleans, September 20-25.

"These are complicated days for our church internationally and it's all the more important to foster personal relationships and conversations," he said.

"My aim is to keep people around the table for as long as possible on this and to understand one another."