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Associated Press

CANTERBURY, England – The spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans said he feels “great grief” that more than 200 bishops are boycotting the Lambeth Conference, calling it a wound to the once-a-decade meeting of the Anglican fellowship.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams expressed respect for the decision of church leaders who stayed away, but he said their absence should not stop participants from trying to repair fractured relations, according to a paper released Thursday containing highlights of his private talk the previous day.

“I don’t imagine that simply building relationships solves our problems,” he told bishops at a closed-door prayer retreat Wednesday. “But the nature of our calling as Christians is such that we dare not, and I say very strongly, dare not pretend that we can meet and discuss without attention to this quality of relation with each other even if we disagree.”

The Anglican Communion is a 77 million-member family of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England, including the Episcopal Church in the United States.

The centuries-old fellowship has long held together with different views of ritual and Scripture. But the communion began splintering in 2003 when the Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Around one-quarter of the world’s Anglican bishops – theological conservatives mainly from Africa – are not attending the Lambeth Conference because Williams invited U.S. church leaders who consecrated Robinson and other church leaders who accept gay relationships.

Robinson and a few other clergy have been barred from the assembly, which runs through Aug. 3. The 650 or so church leaders who are participating are a mix of traditionalists, liberals and others with conflicting ideas on what Anglicans should believe.

Williams has designed a conference program with no votes or resolutions. Instead, the bishops will engage in Bible study and small group discussions on issues ranging from evangelism to the structure of the communion. Williams said the gathering has been set up so “every voice can be heard.” The first public event, opening worship, is set for Sunday.

“It’s a great grief that many of our brothers and sisters in the communion have not felt able to be with us for these weeks, a grief because we need their voice and they need ours in learning Christ together,” Williams said at the prayer meeting.

On Thursday, bishops gathered privately in Canterbury Cathedral, where Williams gave sermons on the role of bishops as viewed through the Gospel.

Details of those talks were not released. But Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island said the archbishop of Canterbury spoke about how bishops must “call everyone together.”

“Many people want us as bishops to align ourselves to one group or another,” she said, summarizing his remarks. “But as bishops we must say there is more than just being on one man’s side. You have to make decisions for the good of the whole. There’s not just one way.”

Last month, a group of Anglican traditionalists from Africa, Australia and other regions who are frustrated with Williams’ leadership formed a new network within the communion that challenges his authority, while stopping short of schism.

Of Williams’ sermon Thursday, Wolf said, “For those who like absolute answers and who wish for him to address the issues in the communion, this was probably a disappointment,” but she said most people seemed to find his address inspirational.

Bishop Stacy Sauls of Lexington, Ky., who participated in the retreat Thursday, said he has sensed no animosity from bishops who have condemned the decision to consecrate Robinson. One strong critic, a West African bishop, even hugged him, Sauls said.

But Sauls said, “We’re also too soon to get into many issues. The focus right now is on prayer.”

Lambeth Conference:

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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