NEW YORK Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, struggling to hold together the troubled world Anglican family, urged church leaders gathered Sunday in England not to consecrate another gay bishop, saying the fellowship will be in "grave peril" without a moratorium.
In his final speech at the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference, Archbishop Williams said Anglicans need "space for study and free discussion without pressure" about whether to accept changes in traditional biblical understanding of same-sex relationships. He also asked churches to refrain from adopting official prayers for blessing same-gender unions.
"If the North American churches don't accept the need for moratoria, then to say the least, we are no further forward," Archbishop Williams said at a news conference ending the 20-day assembly in Canterbury. "That means as a communion we continue to be in grave peril."
The 77 million-member Anglican Communion has been splintering since 2003, when the U.S. Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Williams barred Robinson and a few other bishops from the meeting, and designed the event without legislation or votes, instead focusing on rebuilding frayed relationships.
Still, more than 200 theologically conservative bishops boycotted the gathering, upset that Williams had invited Episcopal leaders who consecrated Robinson. In June, just before Lambeth began, those same conservative bishops formed a new global network within the communion that challenges Williams' authority but stops short of a permanent split.
Williams does not have the authority to force an agreement among the conflicted groups. The 38 Anglican national churches, including the U.S. Episcopal Church, are self-governed and loosely connected by shared roots in the missionary work of the Church of England.
But the 650 bishops at Lambeth said Sunday in a statement, which they called their "reflections" on the meeting, that "there is widespread support across the communion" for an extended moratorium on gay bishops and on blessing ceremonies for same-gender couples.
"A fellow Christian may believe they have a profound fresh insight," Williams said in his final address. "But the Christian with the new insight can't claim straight away that this is now what the Church of God believes or intends."
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori issued a brief statement that did not address the requested bans. She said the communion "is suffering the birth pangs of something new" and urged patience in the church.
Los Angeles Bishop Jon Bruno told Episcopal Cafe, the blog of the Diocese of Washington, D.C., "for people who think that this is going to lead us to disenfranchise any gay or lesbian person, they are sadly mistaken." Same-sex marriage was legalized in California in June.
The Anglican Church of Canada also has parishes that permit blessings for same-sex couples.
No one expected the Lambeth Conference to definitively heal the rifts among Anglicans. Still, other Christians watched the gathering closely.
The communion is the third-largest religious group in the world, behind Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Many Protestant churches are also struggling with how they should interpret what Scripture says about gay relationships and other issues.
Anglican internal problems are also hurting their ties with other Christians.
Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, spoke at Lambeth, urging the bishops to maintain Christian tradition. What is at stake "is nothing other than our faithfulness to Christ himself," Kasper said.
Vatican and Anglican officials have been in talks for years about reunifying an effort complicated by the Church of England's recent move to accept female bishops. Anglicans split from Rome when England's King Henry VIII bolted in 1534 after he was refused a marriage annulment.
The bishops at Lambeth discussed a proposed global covenant that would set some requirements for membership in the communion. Williams said Sunday that he plans a meeting early next year of the 38 Anglican national leaders, or primates, to move ahead with the idea. But it will be years before any agreement is reached.
Williams and the bishops also urged a moratorium on church leaders taking oversight of breakaway parishes in an Anglican territory that is not their own.
Conservative Anglican leaders from Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere now have authority over seceding Episcopal parishes. One diocese, San Joaquin, based in Fresno, Calif., has broken away, and two more Pittsburgh and Fort Worth, Texas are poised to do the same this fall.
Robinson traveled to Canterbury even though he wasn't invited, meeting with overseas bishops and serving as what he called a "constant and friendly" reminder of gays in the church. His spokesman did not return a call Sunday seeking comment.
On the Net:
Lambeth Conference: www.lambethconference.org/index.cfm