In what was widely seen as a victory for traditionalists in the 77 million-strong church, the pro-gay North American liberals were asked late this week by their fellow Anglican leaders to bow out for at least three years from one of its leading bodies.

“The North American churches have been able to hear very clearly and directly the challenges that are coming from the majority of the Communion,” said Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the 38 loosely-knit churches, or provinces, which make up the worldwide Anglican Communion.

After a four-day crisis meeting in Northern Ireland, church leaders said: “We request that the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada voluntarily withdraw their members from the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC).”

They said the withdrawal of the two churches should be reviewed in 2008 at the Lambeth Conference, the 10-yearly meeting of all Anglican bishops.

The most serious rift in the Communion’s history erupted in 2003, when the Episcopal Church — the US Anglican province with 2.3 million members — ordained openly gay Gene Robinson as a bishop.

The decision enraged traditionalists, particularly in Africa, who demanded the Americans repent.

At a news conference at a retreat near Newry, where this week’s meeting was held, the panel of senior bishops who drafted the closing communiqué sought to put a positive gloss on the decision.

“The purpose of this is to create some space,” said Australian Archbishop Peter Carnley.

Archbishop Williams insisted the Anglican church was not splitting up over the issue, but acknowledged any resolution would have to involve one side in the bitter dispute backing down.

“I haven’t had cause to revise my idea that there is no painless solution, I just think human life isn’t like that,” he said.

“Any lasting solution, I think, will require people to say, somewhere along the line, yes, they were wrong, wrong about something, what, I don’t know.”

US Episcopal Church spokesman Canon Robert Williams said he took a positive view of the decision, which he said did not invite schism.

“Once again, the Anglican Primates (leaders) have found a way forward together in a comprehensive way amid differences of opinion,” he said.

But the conservatives were in no mood to compromise.

The Anglican Communion Network and the American Anglican Council, representing dissenting conservatives in the US, said the two Northern American churches had been “effectively suspended” from the Communion to consider their position.

Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola was reported to have held a celebration dinner with fellow conservatives after the late night communiqué dealt a severe blow to liberals in a broad church that has always been run by consensus.

Nigeria, home to almost a quarter of the world’s Anglicans, abhors the idea of gay bishops as does much of Africa.

African church leaders fear that if Anglicanism takes a lenient line on homosexuality, its followers will desert its pews for more conservative Christian churches or Islam.

“People harvest what they have sown,” said Peter Karanja of the Anglican church in Kenya who saw the decision as moving Anglicans toward a split.

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