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London - Dark storm clouds of a schism are gathering over the 2008 Lambeth Conference, the 10-yearly meeting of Anglican bishops in Canterbury, England, where an escalating controversy over homosexual priests could prove the biggest challenge to church unity since the 16th century Protestant reformation. Looking back to 1998, when the row was contained with face-saving formulae condemning homophobia while not condoning gay equality, the leadership of the Anglican Church must feel like having performed a Lambeth Walk - the strutting 1930s dance which took two steps forward and one back.
At the half-way point between 1998 and 2008, adherence to slogans of unity and tolerance was shattered by the landmark consecration in the US of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as a bishop of the Episcopal Church, the US branch of the Anglican Communion.
Robinson's appointment, as Bishop of New Hampshire, unleashed a firestorm and deepened divisions between the traditionalists and liberal wings of the 80-million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion to breaking point.
Like a schoolmaster punishing unruly children, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the worldwide Anglican Church, took Robinson off the guest list for 2008 - a move that has only strengthened Robinson's resolve to make his presence felt on the fringes of the gathering.
"When we avoid people we find uncomfortable it ... ceases to be an incarnate conversation," commented Katharine Jefferts Schori, a strong supporter of Robinson who was named presiding Episcopal bishop in 2006.
The divisions over homosexuality afflicting the US church have long since crossed the Atlantic, with many in the English church saying it is no longer a question of if, but when, a schism would occur.
"There are two churches of England, travelling in different directions," one long-time observer said of the agonizing debate.
Both sides have contributed to raising the temperature ahead of the Lambeth Conference from July 20 to August 4.
Pointedly, just weeks before the conference, senior London clergyman Martin Dudley defied church rules by presiding over the church blessing of two gay Anglican priests - complete with a traditional wedding liturgy, bridesmaids and rings.
The ceremony, on May 31, infuriated the Church of England leadership and strengthened the resolve of some 200 break-away traditionalist bishops to boycott Lambeth and instead hold their own "rival" conference in Jerusalem at the end of June.
That meeting, called the Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon), and dominated by traditionalists from Africa, South America, Asia and Australia, condemned the "false gospel" that had paralysed the Anglican Communion on homosexuality while also deploring the "spiritual decline of the most economically developed nations."
In their Jerusalem Declaration, the traditionalists, claiming to represent at least half of the membership of the worldwide communion, and more than a third of its bishops, accused liberal Anglicans of "re-writing the Bible to suit their current lifestyles."
"It has been a most agonizing journey towards Lambeth," the conservative bishops said in their final declaration, while rejecting as a "myth" that they were a "homophobic" movement seeking to seize power within the Anglican Church.
The Jerusalem meeting set up a global grouping called The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (Foca), which would form a primates' council that would "send bishops anywhere in the world to help traditionalists counter liberal policies."
Critics have called it the formation of a "church within a church" and said the moves now under way posed an unprecedented threat to church unity.
"Although the instigators claim they are focused on reform from within, it is said to represent the worst blow to church unity in the West since the Protestant reformation of the 16th century," said Ruth Gledhill, the long-standing religion correspondent of the London Times.
But Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney, Australia, who has emerged as a key player on the Anglican conservative wing, denied the movement was seeking to split the church or "seize power within it."
"These are unusual methods," the archbishop conceded, adding, "But we live in unusual times."
For the first time ever, the Jerusalem meeting challenged directly the authority of Williams as leader of the worldwide Anglican movement.
"While acknowledging the nature of Canterbury as an historic see, we do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition of the Archbishop of Canterbury," it said.
Williams, clearly forced to react to such a challenge, said he was concerned at the way "post-colonialism is being used as a smokescreen for an abuse of power and position, and at the ease with which his role and office had been so readily dismissed.
"It is ludicrous to say you do not recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury or the See of Canterbury. By doing away with the role and the place, these people are becoming a Protestant sect," his spokesman said.
Williams, meanwhile, who has won praise and criticism for his attempt at a balanced handling of the burning issue of homosexuality, warned the break-away bishops to "think carefully about the risks entailed" in their position.
Facing what is certain to be his most difficult, and divisive Lambeth Conference, he is clearly still hoping that moderation will prevail.
Deploying his biblical authority, Williams attempted to calm the storm by quoting from St Paul's letter to the Corinthians: "Wait for another."