The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has said that the church may have to accept “two styles of being Anglican” in order to avoid a schism.
Earlier this month, US Anglicans, including both clergy and laypeople, voted against a three-year moratorium on consecrating gay bishops.
At the time, Dr Williams spoke of his “regret” over the move.
In a statement posted on his website yesterday, he wrote that the ordination of gays may lead to two tracks of the church.
He wrote: “This has been called a ‘two-tier’ model, or, more disparagingly, a first- and second-class structure. But perhaps we are faced rather with the possibility of the two-track model, two ways of witnessing to the Anglican heritage.
“It helps to be clear about these possible futures, however much we think them less than ideal, and to speak about them not in apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication but plainly as what they are – two styles of being Anglican.”
Dr Williams said this split should not been seen in “apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication”.
Although he argued that prejudice and violence against LGBT people was “sinful and disgraceful”, he added: “The question is not a simple one of human rights or human dignity. It is that a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences.
“If society changes its attitudes, that change does not of itself count as a reason for the Church to change its discipline.
US Anglicans voted to lift the moratorium and allow gays in committed relationships to serve.
Dr Williams wrote: “A person living in such a union cannot without serious incongruity have a representative function in a Church whose public teaching is at odds with their lifestyle.
“A blessing for a same-sex union cannot have the authority of the Church Catholic, or even of the Communion as a whole . . . It is hard to see how they can act in the necessarily representative role that the ordained ministry, especially the episcopate, requires.”
Divisions over gay bishops began in 2003, when the openly gay Gene Robinson, of New Hampshire, was consecrated as a bishop. His appointment caused deep rifts between liberals and traditionalists.
In the last three years, the Anglican Communion has been pushing the Episcopal Church to “restrain” the numbers of gay bishops in order to avoid a split in the Anglican church. No new gay bishops have been consecrated in this time.