CANTERBURY, England -- The head of the Anglican Communion said Sunday that the global fellowship faces "one of the most severe challenges" in its history, and he urged bishops at their once-a-decade Lambeth Conference to do the hard work of finding solutions.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said the Anglican family's most immediate need is for "transformed relationships" so they don't break apart over homosexuality and the Bible.
"We all know that we stand in the middle of one of the most severe challenges to have faced the Anglican family in its history," he said in an address to the 650 bishops at the assembly.
But he said the world fellowship has survived other crises in its centuries-long history, and he has faith that church leaders can overcome the most recent troubles.
"Whatever the popular perception, the options before us are not irreparable schism or forced assimilation," Williams said. "It is not an option to hope that we can somehow just carry on as we always have."
Williams made the comments as church leaders in Canterbury emerged from days of prayer and turned to the business of their meeting. In Bible study and small group discussion, they will try to rebuild the ties among Anglican national churches that shattered after the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The work of the meeting, which runs through Aug. 3, is complicated by a boycott. About one-quarter of the invited bishops -- theological conservatives mostly from Africa -- stayed away because Williams invited bishops from the U.S. and elsewhere who accept gay relationships.
Williams called their absence a "wound" and asked participants to pray for the boycotters. He barred Robinson and a few other problematic bishops from the conference.
Still, Robinson is in Canterbury, staying on the outskirts of the meeting, working with advocates for Anglican gays and lesbians and hoping to meet as many overseas Anglican bishops as possible.
The 77-million-member Anglican Communion is a global fellowship of churches that trace their roots to the missionary work of the Church of England. It is the second-largest group of churches in the world, behind Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
Anglicans have long held together divergent views of Scripture and ritual. But those divisions have been widening as Anglican churches in the developing world, where strict Bible interpretation is the norm, have become the biggest and fastest-growing in the communion.
Last month, a group of Anglican conservatives from Africa, Australia and elsewhere formed a new network within the fellowship that challenges Williams' authority, but stops short of schism. Some of the network organizers are attending Lambeth, but most are staying away.
Other religious groups are facing similar divisions over how they should interpret Scripture, and they are closely watching the outcome of the assembly. Several Vatican officials are among the ecumenical participants at Lambeth.
The meeting was designed without any votes or legislation, and no one expects the Anglicans to resolve their problems by the assembly's end. Organizers instead hope their discussions will help clarify what direction they should take to stay together.
"A Lambeth Conference is not a political meeting about organization or structure alone, but it is a spiritual meeting," said Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, head of the Anglican Church of Australia. "We must go into this confident that a way has been found to the Father ... . We must be confident that that way is there."
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