As Episcopal bishops end their annual retreat ahead of the 2006 Episcopal Council, the issue of ordaining openly gay bishops is top of the agenda.

3 out of 7 candidates put forward in the Diocese of California are living with same sex partners, and arguments about their possible ordination could create an unreachable schism in the Church.

In a statement, the bishops said that they were committed to “the unity, mission and faithfulness of the church,” but as the Council draws nearer and decisions have to be made, keeping a unified front is becoming a challenge.

The Episcopal Church of California is historically gay friendly, and caused controversy in 2003 when it consecrated New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who is openly gay.

As a consequence, at the last Episcopal Council, members decided to put a temporary stay on consecrating bishops in gay relationships and on developing services which could be used in same sex blessings. Hints from the recent retreat suggest that the stay will continue into the next year, as Anglicans from all over the world debate and judge how the church should move forward. “It would be fair to say that a bishop in a same-sex relationship would create definite difficulty in the life of the Communion,” Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said in an interview.

In Canterbury, Archbishop Rowan Williams joined the debate when he refused to censure the American church for confirming Robinson. Though American church leaders have repeatedly apologised for causing controversy, they are not apologising for allowing Robinson’s consecration to happen in the first place.

Rowan Williams said that the American church was in danger of tearing itself apart over the issue and in dividing itself off from the international Anglican community. It could take “decades to restore some sort of relationship,” he said.