The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams apologised yesterday for statements he has made about gay people in the church.

In the last 12 months, Dr Williams has said that the gay “lifestyle” is at odds with the church’s teaching. He also said that the appointment of lesbian Los Angeles assistant bishop Mary Glasspool was “divisive”.

Addressing the General Synod on Tuesday, he asked for unity between conservatives and liberals over issues such as gay clergy and female bishops to avoid a schism.

The Archbishop said: “The debate over the status and vocational possibilities of LGBT people in the church is not helped by ignoring the existing facts, which include many regular worshippers of gay or lesbian orientation and many sacrificial and exemplary priests who share this orientation.

“There are ways of speaking about the question that seem to ignore these human realities or to undervalue them; I have been criticised for doing just this, and I am profoundly sorry for the carelessness that could give such an impression.”

The Archbishop is fighting to avoid a schism in the church over gay clergy and female bishops. He has previously said the church may have to accept “two styles” of Anglicanism over the issue.

But of the recent Lords victories over clarifying amendments to the law on who churches can employ, he said: “Very few Christians were contesting the civil liberties of gay and lesbian people in general; nor should they have been.”

The amendments to the Equality Bill would have made clear churches cannot refuse to employ gay people for non-religious jobs such as caretakers or administrators.

Dr Williams continued: “What they were contesting was a relatively small but extremely significant point of detail … whether government had the right to tell religious bodies which of the tasks for which they might employ people required and which did not require some level of compliance with the public teaching of the church about behaviour.”

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 for “restraint” on the numbers of gay bishops in order to avoid a split in the Anglican church.

In July 2009, Anglican clergy and laity in the US voted to reject a three-year moratorium on the consecration of gay clergy.