The Archbishop of Canterbury told 650 bishops gathered at the Lambeth Conference on Sunday that the Anglican Communion is in the midst of "one of the most severe challenges" in its history.
Dr. Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the global Communion, was addressing the bishops in his opening sermon of the Lambeth Conference at the University of Kent in Canterbury. The sermon followed three days of retreat.
He urged bishops to take a new approach to controversial issues like same-sex blessings and homosexual consecrations, saying that there had never been a golden age for the Anglican body, according to The Times.
He also reaffirmed his support for the Anglican Covenant, a document being drafted in the hopes of balancing autonomy and unity among the Communion's 38 provinces.
Williams added, however, "We cannot ignore the fact that what is seen to be a new doctrine and policy about same-sex relations, one that is not the same as that of the vast majority at the last Lambeth Conference, is causing pain and perplexity."
Last week, Williams expressed his "grief" at the absence of around 230 bishops, who have chosen to boycott the once-a-decade conference in protest of the presence of pro-gay bishops.
Monday, the first official day of business, will see the bishops break into "indaba" groups – based on a Zulu term meaning purposeful discussion. They will address the different challenges facing Anglicans, including gender violence, sexuality, the environment, the Anglican Covenant and mission and evangelization.
Williams defended the indaba process saying it would help Lambeth move beyond rhetoric.
"If you look at the resolutions that have been passed since 1867, you'll find many of them, on really important subjects, have never been acted on."
He urged Anglicans on opposite sides of the debate to respect one another.
"We need to get beyond the reciprocal impatience that shows itself in the ways in which both liberals and traditionalists are ready – almost eager at times, it appears – to assume that the other is not actually listening to Jesus," Williams said.
"We also know that how we think about that unity is itself affected by the urgency of the calls on our compassion and imagination; some sorts of division undoubtedly will seem a luxury in the face of certain challenges – as many Christians in Germany found when confronted by Hitler. We have to think and pray hard about what the essentials really are."