The Archbishop of Canterbury has criticised reports of a proposal to divide the Anglican Church.

Dr Rowan Williams used his address to the Church of England’s national assembly, the General Synod, to call interpretations of the idea of “associated” and “covenant” congregations “nonsense.”

He said: “In spite of some interesting reporting and some slightly intemperate reaction, this contained no directives (I do not have authority to dictate policy to the provinces of the Communion) and no foreclosing of the character and content of such a covenant. Were any such arrangement to be proposed, it would of course have to be owned by the constitutional bodies governing Provinces.”

Dr Williams expressed concern at statements from US bishops and the African Anglican Church to move away from the communion in protest against the recent Episcopal Conference where many conservative clergymen felt the issue of gay bishops was not appropriately addressed.

“When I said, as I did in my reflections, that the Communion cannot remain as it is, I was drawing attention to some unavoidable choices. Many have said, with increasing force of late, that we must contemplate or even encourage the breakup of the Communion into national churches whose autonomy is unqualified and which relate only in some sort of loose and informal federation. This has obvious attractions for some. The problem is that it is unlikely to bear any relation to reality.

“Many provinces are internally fragile; we cannot assume that what will naturally happen is a neat pattern of local consensus. There are already international alliances, formal and informal, between Provinces and between groups within different Provinces. There are lines of possible fracture that have nothing to do with provincial boundaries. The disappearance of an international structure, leaves us with the possibility of much less than a federation, indeed, of competing and fragmenting ecclesial bodies in many contexts across the world,” he added.

He insisted that he has no powers to divide the Church, despite reports that he plans to separate the communion between “associated” and “covenant” groups, he said: “Historic links to Canterbury have no canonical force, and we do not have (and I hope we don’t develop) an international executive. We depend upon consent. My argument was and is that such consent may now need a more tangible form than it has hitherto had; hence the Covenant idea in Windsor.

“But if there is such a structure, and if we do depend on consent, the logical implication is that particular churches are free to say yes or no; and a no has consequences, not as ‘punishment’ but simply as a statement of what can and cannot be taken for granted in a relationship between two particular churches. When I spoke as I did of ‘churches in association’, I was trying to envisage what such a relation might be if it was less than full eucharistic communion and more than mutual repudiation. It was not an attempt to muddy the waters but to offer a vocabulary for thinking about how levels of seriously impaired or interrupted communion could be understood.

“In other words, I can envisage – though I don’t in the least want to see – a situation in which there may be more divisions than at present within the churches that claim an Anglican heritage.”

The US Episcopal Church agreed to “exercise restraint” in ordaining gay bishops, as part of an effort to amend rifts within the Anglican Church after the appointment of gay bishop of New Hampshire Gene Robinson in 2003.

The African Anglican Church expressed dismay at the decision which ignored most of the recommendations of the Windsor Report, aimed at mending rifts between the church over the gay issue.