Pope Francis has signalled his blessing to the breakaway traditionalist American church at the centre of the split which has divided the 80 million strong worldwide Anglican Communion over the issue of sexuality.
He sent a message offering his “prayers and support” to Archbishop Foley Beach, the new leader of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), the conservative movement which broke away from The Episcopal Church after the ordination of the first openly gay bishop.
His message underlines the pressure facing the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, as he attempts to avert a formal schism in worldwide Anglicanism.
ACNA sees itself as the true Anglican church in the US, Canada and Mexico and believes that The Episcopal Church has abandoned the teaching of the Bible by embracing liberal stances on issues such as homosexuality.
Crucially it is recognised by the leaders of Anglican churches across Africa and Asia, many of whom were present at the new primate’s installation in Atlanta on Thursday.
But, in an interview last week, Archbishop Welby underlined his view that ACNA is “not part of the Anglican Communion”.
The message from Pope Francis was delivered during the service by the Rt Rev Gregory Venables, the Anglican bishop of Argentina, who had a long-standing friendship with his former Roman Catholic counterpart, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, until his election as pope.
Bishop Venables, told how he was recovering from a severe illness earlier this year when he had a telephone call from an Argentine man who introduced himself as “Francis”.
To laughter from the congregation, he explained that he had responded: “Francis who?”
“He said, with a wonderful degree of humility and patience, ‘no it’s Father Jorge’,” the bishop explained.
He went on: “He asked me this evening … in fact he wrote to me just a few days ago and said when you go to the United States please, in my name, give my personal congratulations and greetings to Archbishop Foley.
“Assure him of my prayers and support at this moment and in the future as he leads the Church at this very important moment of revival and mission.”
Summoning the Archbishop forward, he passed on the blessing in Argentine fashion, kissing him twice on the forehead before embracing him.
Underlining the challenge faced by Archbishop Welby, who was not present, Bishop Venables added: “This is a celebration of true Anglicanism.
“This evening meeting in this place is the majority of the Anglican Communion, this evening here the majority of the Anglican Communion is represented because the vast majority in the Anglican Communion believe that the word of God is true, believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and believe that he is our only hope as we move forward.