A quarter of the world's Anglican bishops are boycotting a once-in-a-decade gathering of church leaders in a row over gay clergy.
Church officials said that 230 out of 880 bishops worldwide were staying away from the Lambeth conference which has opened in the English cathedral city of Canterbury, spiritual home of the deeply divided church.
Bishops from Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda, who boast some of the fastest-expanding congregations in the Anglican church, were among those who pledged to snub the conference.
Liberal and conservative clergy have been brought to the brink of schism over the ordination in 2003 of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire in the United States, the first openly gay bishop in the church's 450-year history.
Conservative Anglican leaders staged their own conference in Jerusalem last month at which they pledged to form a council of bishops to provide an alternative to churches who they say are preaching a "false gospel" of sexual immorality.
|Williams faces opposition over plans to ordain women bishops [EPA]
The alternative Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon) said member churches would continue sponsoring breakaway conservative parishes in the liberal Western member countries and called for a separate conservative province in North America.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans, said the Gafcon plans were "fraught with difficulty".
Williams faces another battle in the Church of England, the Anglican mother church, over plans to ordain women bishops that have sparked threats of a mass walkout by conservative clergy.
Divisions were aired this month at the general synod, the Church of England's ruling body, which provoked an angry response from John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York.
"Jesus Christ is on the street weeping. Did you see the newspaper that said the church is navel-gazing while our children are being slaughtered and killed," Sentamu said, referring to British public concern over knife crime.
Robinson, whose decision to be open about his homosexuality provoked so much Anglican angst, agreed it was time for the church to stop being so self-obsessed.
"With young men knifing each other in the streets of London and a billion or more people going through life on less than a dollar a day, what a shame, what a waste it is for the Anglican communion to be tearing itself apart over two men or two women who want to make a Christian family together," he said.
Archbishop Williams, hoping to keep clashes and controversy to a minimum at the three-week Lambeth summit, decided not to invite Robinson, disappointing the US bishop.
Robinson, who will still be coming to Canterbury to meet fellow clerics on the margins of the conference, believed clashes will be few and far between at Lambeth.
Forecasting it will end with a typically fudged Anglican consensus, he said: "It will drive the press crazy. There will be no resolutions, no proclamations, no lines drawn in the sand."
After congregating in Canterbury on Wednesday, the bishops will head into a four-day biblical retreat away from the eyes of the media.
They launch into a full conference agenda next week.