“I do not assume that homosexual inclination is a disease,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, told bishops of the American branch of the Anglican Communion.

He warned that “violence against gay and lesbian people is inexcusable,” adding: “Gay and lesbian people have a place in the Church as do all the baptised.”

Mr Williams, is in New Orleans meeting with his American counterparts in order to avoid a split in the Anglican Communion over the ordination of gay clergy and more widely over the treatment of homosexuality.

“Despite what has been claimed, there is no ultimatum involved,” he told a press conference.

Asked if the church was prepared to let some congregations break away, Mr Williams answered: “I think it would be rather an admission of defeat if we said that we were incapable of working together on the issues that divide us.

“Whether we get to that point, I don’t know. I have to say God forbid.”

The crisis over gay issues began in 2003 with the ordination in New Hampshire of the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson.

Evangelical and conservative American Anglicans have rejected the authority of gay-friendly bishops in their country and are seeking religious leadership from a range of African leaders.

The Anglican church in Rwanda, Nigeria and Uganda have all taken control of parishes in the US who dissent from the view that there is a place for gay people in the church.

Some Anglicans think that even if the Archbishop can persuade his colleagues to give him the assurances he seeks, it will not avoid an irrevocable split in the 77-million member Anglican communion.

One senior churchman told The Guardian: “The Africans are creating their own form of Anglicanism.

“It is not traditional, welcoming, inclusive Anglicanism, it is saying who can join and who cannot.

“The Holy Spirit does not work like that, like some aircraft, looking for somewhere to land and then taking off again, because he doesn’t approve of some of those in the church.”

Archbishop Williams has spoken publicly several times of his fear that the Anglican church might not be able to remain united in the face of deepening rows over gay and lesbian issues.