Stephen Bates and Riazat Butt
Dr Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, warned of the risk of "piece-by-piece dissolution" of worldwide Anglicanism in a heartfelt personal plea today to warring factions in the Church of England.
At the opening of the church's general synod in London, he called for all parties to put aside their disputes and agree on a fresh framework for settling differences across the 70 million-strong international communion.
The synod votes tomorrow on the Anglican covenant, which has been seven years in the making, and sets the Church of England at a crucial crossroads. The church is already facing probable defections to Roman Catholicism by some priests opposed to the ordination of women bishops.
The covenant was devised in response to divisions caused by the US Episcopal Church's decision to endorse the election of the openly-gay bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, and it has to be endorsed by all 38 previously autonomous provinces of the communion across the world. The vote will be crucial as not only is the Church of England the mother church of the communion, but Williams is its spiritual head. A senior church official told the Guardian: "There is no Plan B. If this falls, the communion is in ruins."
In advance of the vote – which is technically to refer the covenant to dioceses for consultation – supporters and opponents have indulged in heated rhetoric; liberal Anglicans claimed it would spell the end of individual churches' autonomy and subject decisions of the Church of England to the prior approval of reactionary churches such as the homophobic conservatives of equatorial Africa. Gregory Cameron, the Bishop of St Asaph in Wales, the canon lawyer mainly responsible for drawing up the covenant, likened opponents to the BNP.
Williams used his presidential address to the first day of the general synod to urge both sides to calm down, listen to each other and work through their differences.
"For God's sake," he said. "Don't let us waste time and energy talking or behaving as if there were competition going on here ... I don't think we are doing the job for which God has called us here if we reproduce the worst aspects of secular partisanship."
He told the synod it was an "illusion" to think the communion could "carry on as usual" without some changes. And it was a "greater illusion" to think the Church of England could "derail the entire process" of the adoption of the covenant, a text that opponents claim will define who belongs and discipline those who flout rules.
"The unpalatable fact is that certain decisions in any province affect all," he said. "If we ignore this, we ignore what is already a real danger, the piece-by-piece dissolution of the communion and the emergence of structures in which relation to the Church of England and the See of Canterbury are likely not to figure very significantly."
Williams, who has tried to keep disparate churches talking rather than leave the communion altogether, articulated the hopelessness of taking up entrenched positions on homosexuality, criticising both sides in the debate.
Aides say he has been depressed by the battle. He said: "It is unthinkingly treated by some as almost the sole test of biblical fidelity or doctrinal orthodoxy. It is unthinkingly regarded by others as one of those matters on which the church must be brought into line with what our culture can make sense of ... The covenant proposals are the only sign at the moment of the work that has to be done."
Anglican provinces would only belong to the communion if they signed up to the covenant, he said. They would agree not to proceed with any development that fellow members anywhere in the world objected to.
The archbishop acknowledged that he was "bound to accept" his share of "reproach" for the lack of progress in major debates and invited the synod to help him do better by creating an "ambience where better understanding may happen".
Earlier, the supreme governor of the Church of England, the Queen, addressed the synod, reflecting on the "difficult, painful choices" ahead.