The archbishop of Canterbury says he voted against ordaining women as priests in the Anglican Church because women in the priesthood "would divide the church" at a time when it is "facing so much more urgent issues."

Answering questions at a National Press Club luncheon yesterday, the titular head of the worldwide Anglican communion also said abortion is "impermissible for a Christian, as a matter of general guidance," but that there are circumstances in which he might counsel abortion as the lesser of two evils.

The archbishop, who by virtue of his office is a member of the British Parliament, also said that in general, he feels "uncomfortable" about clergy getting involved in partisan politics, but added that it can be justified at times "when some fundamental Christian principle is being outraged."

Fielding difficult questions with ease and frequent humor, the Most Rev. Robert Runcie, 59, who has been in the top Anglican office less than a year, said he supported "enlarging the area of decision making" by women in the church "in all sorts of ways." But he said "our progress toward unity with the Roman Catholic and the [Eastern] Orthodox churches would be seriously interrupted" by ordination of women.

He said that the quest for unity and the possibility of a united Christendom "confronting an often hostile and violent world" is much more urgent" than ordaining women to the priesthood, which, he said, "I don't regard as the top profession for women."

Therefore, he said, "I voted against it" when the question came before the Church of England nearly two years ago. "But I am now living with it [the presence of women priests] in the Anglican communion, and if and when it comes [to the Church of England] it won't cause me to leave the church."

Four of the 28 provinces within the worldwide Anglican communion, including the United States and Canada, have ordained women. In Anglicanism, each province can move with a great deal of independence on such matters.

In responding to the emotion-laden question, "Do you believe a woman has the right to control her own body?" the archbishop said: "I don't think for the Christian you can have abortion on demand. I think easy abortion is the sign of an unhealthy society. That's my personal view."

But he qualified that by stating, "I do know that there are situations . . . in which you have to choose between two evils so that [a pastor] might advise abortion in certain circumstances." Acknowledging some ambiguity in his reply to the question, he said: "I'd rather be inarticulate and stand for principles than give you easy answers."

He declined to answer a question on Northern Ireland, saying that as soon as he completes his visit here he will make his first official visit there, which he called "an important visit to listen and to learn . . . and if I start shooting off my mouth here . . . ."

Runcie is in Washington to preside over a gathering of the heads of the Anglican Church's 28 provinces worldwide. The meeting concludes Friday with an evensong service at the Washington Cathedral