LONDON (Reuters) - The new spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans held private talks on Thursday on same-sex marriage with a prominent gay rights campaigner who had called him homophobic for opposing it.
Less than a month after taking over for Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby agreed to meet Peter Tatchell after the activist publicly criticized him.
Britain's lawmakers voted heavily in favor of legalizing same-sex unions in February, but there are several more parliamentary hurdles to pass before it becomes law.
Prime Minister David Cameron has championed the legislation, which the Anglican and Catholic churches oppose along with many in his Conservative Party.
The invitation to Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, came after Tatchell wrote an open letter condemning the new head of the 80 million-strong church over his stance on the issue.
"You claim that you are not homophobic but a person who opposes legal equality for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people) is homophobic," Tatchell wrote.
Speaking at a makeshift news conference in the rain across the road from Lambeth Palace's imposing red brick gatehouse with its big oak doors, Tatchell said their meeting was a breakthrough.
"Rowan Williams never invited me to Lambeth Palace but Justin Welby did," Thatchell said. "He strikes me as someone who genuinely wants to listen and to have a dialogue."
Welby faces the challenge of uniting the Anglican church, which during his predecessor's decade in office risked tearing itself apart over same-sex marriages and the ordination of gay priests.
Gay couples in Britain may have "civil partnerships", conferring the same legal rights as marriage, but campaigners say the distinction gives the impression that society considers gay relationships inferior.
Welby is seen as a pragmatic and down-to-earth trouble-shooter, hardened by years of work as a crisis negotiator in Africa among separatists in the swamps of the Niger Delta and Islamists in northern Nigeria.
Lambeth Palace declined to comment on the meeting with Tatchell, which the campaigner called "constructive", while conceding that stark differences in opinion remained.
"Same-sex relationships are in his (Welby's) view an intrinsically different type of relationship from heterosexual marriage and therefore he felt very ... unconvinced that marriage was appropriate as a legal framework for gay and lesbian couples," Tatchell said.
Reporting by Sarah Young; editing by Andrew Roche