The 650 senior clergy gathered in the cathedral city of Canterbury today for the start of their once-a-decade get together must all be aware that this conference is make or break for the Anglican communion.

On the outside looking in is the uninvited Bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson.

His ordination as the first openly gay bishop enraged traditionalists, horrified the moderates and caused an earthquake of church-splitting proportions.

Five years on, and his continued place in the church has led to a hardening of language and attitudes towards gay ordinations and even the blessing of gay couples.

More than 200 bishops are boycotting Lambeth and refusing to “discuss the faith that holds them together and the issues which are driving them apart,” as Martin Beckford eloquently put it in The Telegraph.

The most high profile absentee today is the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali together with 99 of Nigerian Anglican bishops after their leader, the Bishop of Nigeria, Dr Peter Akinola ordered them to boycott the event.

“The Anglican church prides itself on being the church that is comprehensive, meaning that it includes all kinds of points of view,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu told Sky News last week.

That broad church ideal seems to be losing currency on both sides of the divide.

300 rebel bishops gathered at the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) last month and approved the formation of a new global network to fight against the preaching of “false gospels” of homosexuality and other “immoral” sexual behaviour.

The group claims to represent 35 million of the 77 million Anglicans worldwide and rejects the acceptance of gay relationships and the ordination of gay clergy and formed the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FOCA).

A spokesman for Rowan Williams, who as Archbishop of Canterbury is the man tasked with trying to preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion, said “these people are becoming a Protestant sect.”

Liberals in the Church of England are incensed at moves to break away from the Communion, calling their claims to be “traditionalists” bogus.

The bishops from across the world will spend the next three days at the University of Kent in quiet prayer in reflection before the conference of a lifetime begins in earnest.

“I pray that these days spent in reflection, prayer, discussion and fellowship will bear fruit in the life of the entire Communion in which God has called us to minister,” Dr Williams said in his welcome message.

“The chief aims of our time together are, first, that we become more confident in our Anglican identity, by deepening our awareness of how we are responsible to and for each other; and second, that we grow in energy and enthusiasm for our task of leading the work of mission in our Church.

“Jesus Christ says again and again to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid’. These are words which I hope will echo for us each day as we meet and talk here.”