The Archbishop of Canterbury fears the Anglican Church will finally split if his warnings over promoting gay bishops are not heeded.
Dr Rowan Williams has confided in his closest aides that he believes his visit to a summit of Church leaders in America this week is critical to the survival of the Anglican Communion.
In one of the most crucial weeks of his tenure as Archbishop, he will fly to New Orleans on Wednesday to urge American bishops to heed the recommendations of the Windsor Report, which called on liberals to refrain from making further pro-gay moves.
They have been given the “deadline” of September 30 to introduce a moratorium on electing gay bishops.
Dr Williams’s efforts to keep the warring factions within the fold of the Anglican Communion will effectively be rendered meaningless if the American Church refuses to comply with the demands of the global church leaders.
“He’s in no uncertainty as to the importance of this meeting,” said one of his closest aides.
“The meeting is a major step in deciding whether the Anglican Communion can stay together as a global family. The Archbishop will try to find out whether the Episcopal Church is prepared to seek a way forward.”
The Anglican Communion – which has 70 million members worldwide – was plunged into the present crisis by the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay cleric, to be Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
Dr Williams has spent much of the past four years trying to find a solution to the apparently intractable problems of reconciling the conservative wing – who believe homosexuality is a sin – and the liberals.
He also faces a potential “civil war” in the Church of England because parishes are divided in their support for the Americans and Africans who are opposed to gay clergy.
At the General Synod in July, the Church agreed to proceed with plans for a covenant – or book of beliefs – despite claims that this could jeopardise the traditional freedom of churches.
Dr Williams has no jurisdictional power in the American Church, which is one of the Communion’s 38 autonomous provinces, but hopes they will heed his plea for restraint.
“He will talk to them about the current affairs in the Communion and explain his concerns to them,” the aide said. “It is up to them to decide whether to act on it.”
The Very Reverend Tracey Lind, a lesbian cleric, has already been nominated for the Bishopric of Chicago and is one of the front-runners to get the job.
She would have to withdraw from the election if the Episcopal Church chooses to halt its liberal agenda.
Presented with a similarly explosive situation last year when the Canadian Church was considering authorising same-sex blessings, Dr Williams was successful in persuading it to back down.
Dr Williams will sit in two three-hour sessions with the American bishops and will be accompanied by other Primates and members of the Anglican Consultative Council – the Communion’s executive body.
The American bishops will not announce their decision until next Monday.