The leader of the world's Anglicans has called for understanding and unity at the end of the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference in a bid to soothe a row over homosexuality in the church.
The conference held in Canterbury, southeastern England, is a key event for the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has around 77 million followers led by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
The meeting has been overshadowed by a dispute about the consecration five years ago of the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, the bishop of New Hampshire in the United States.
“We may not have put an end to all our problems – but the pieces are on the board” to resolve the issues, Williams said in a closing address on Sunday before 650 bishops at the conference.
“And in the months ahead it will be important to invite those absent from Lambeth to be involved in these next stages.”
Around 200 bishops, including those from Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda, boycotted the meeting, while there are moves by clergy from Africa, Australia and the US to create a breakaway group in protest at Robinson's consecration.
“Our Communion longs to stay together – but not only as an association of polite friends,” added Williams. “It is seeking a deeper entry into the place where Christ stands, to find its unity there.”
Participants at the Lambeth Conference covered subjects including evangelisation, human sexuality, social justice and issues such as the environment and violence against women.
The church is divided between conservatives who argue that allowing gay and women bishops goes against Bible teachings, and liberals who want a more inclusive communion.
The Archbishop of Canterbury appealed on Sunday for a “covenant of faith” that would “promise to our fellow human beings the generosity God has shown us”.
“I hope that, if part of the message of Lambeth '08 is that we need to develop covenantal commitments, and that one aspect of this might be what you call covenanted restraint, this will be seen in the context of a unity not enforced but given in Christ,” he said.
“To embrace deeper and more solid ways of recognising and trusting each other can be a grace not a burden; and when trust is deepened, more responsible and prayerful discussions can follow.”
Problems 'not overcome'
In total, about 800 bishops and archbishops were invited to attend the 20-day conference for intensive sessions of worship, study and conversation at the University of Kent campus.
“In these days together we have not overcome our problems or reinvented our structures: that will still take time,” Dr Williams said.
“We have quite a strong degree of support for a Pastoral Forum to support minorities, a strong consensus on the need to examine how the Instruments of Communion will best work, and a recognition – though still with many questions – that a Covenant is needed.”
He added that a series of meetings would be held as soon as next year to discuss moving towards a covenant.
Robinson, the first Anglican bishop to live openly in a gay partnership, was not invited to the conference but held events on the sidelines.
The 61-year-old insists he is not alone among the Anglican communion's clergy in being gay, and says he has come to Britain, against the wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to lend them his support.
“I have no interest in being a martyr, I'm just trying to be a good bishop,” Robinson said in an interview over the weekend.