The Archbishop of Canterbury has accused anti-gay conservative Christians of misinterpreting a key biblical passage written by Saint Paul almost 2,000 years ago.

Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, is on a visit to Canada.

Speaking to theology students in Toronto, he said that the Biblical passage most commonly used to condemn homosexuality, an extract from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, was in fact meant to warn Christians not to be self-righteous in the face of others’ sin.

“Many current ways of reading miss the actual direction of the passage,” Williams said on Monday, according to Reuters.

“Paul is making a primary point not about homosexuality but about the delusions of the supposedly law-abiding,” he added.

His comments constituted a direct attack on conservative bishops who have been using the Bible to try to force pro-gay Anglican communities, particularly in the United States and Canada, out of the Anglican Communion.

Conservative and liberal branches of the worldwide Communion have been at loggerheads over the issues of homosexuality and same-sex unions ever since a gay bishop was ordained in the US in 2003.

Archbishop Williams’ comments come at a time when the Communion is nearing breaking point.

He has revealed that he considered cancelling the Communion’s next Lambeth conference, the assembly of Anglican bishops once every ten years, to avoid a schism.

“Yes, we’ve already been considering that and the answer is no,” he told the Anglican Church of Canada’s Anglican Journal.

“We’ve been looking at whether the timing is right, but if we wait for the ideal time, we will wait more than just 18 months,” he added.

The 14th conference will take place between 16th July and 4th August 2008 in Canterbury.

Archbishop Williams indicated last year that he did not want to discuss human sexuality issues at the conference, emphasising training matters instead.

In the Biblical text at the centre of the controversy Saint Paul says: “Men committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

Williams said that these lines were the most important single text in Scripture on the subject of homosexuality.

But he stressed the importance of subsequent lines in which Paul warns readers not to condemn those who ignore God’s word: “At whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself,” wrote Paul.

Williams argued that a strict theological reading of the text would not allow a Christian to condemn others or find fault in their actions.

But he warned that such a reading would not necessarily prevent a schism since it satisfies neither liberal or conservative standpoints.

The reading maintains that homosexuality was a sin in Paul’s eyes but also challenges modern conservative Christians who judge and find fault in others on the basis of God’s word.

“This does nothing to settle the exegetical questions fiercely debated at the moment,” Williams said.