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Last Updated: Monday, 6 February 2006, 02:46 GMT
Synod tackles women bishop debate
by Robert Pigott
BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent

General Synod of the Church of England
The synod will discuss a compromise on women bishops
The Church of England synod meets in London this week aware that it can little afford further division, with another difficult dispute to defuse - this time about women bishops.

Many Anglicans believe the argument over women bishops was settled more than a decade ago when women were first ordained as priests.

Indeed the Church agreed in principle last July to create women bishops, and some regarded the issue as all over bar the shouting. If that was the case, it has quickly become clear that there'll be plenty of shouting.

The two sides are far apart. Many traditionalists do not recognise that women can be either priests or bishops, citing Jesus's choice only of male apostles. They say the Church of England has no right to introduce women bishops unilaterally in the face of objections from other churches.

Many liberal Anglicans say it's anomalous to have women priests but not bishops, and say the damage to fraternal relations with opponents of women's ordination - such as the Roman Catholic Church - was done long ago when the first women were ordained as women priests.

'Flying bishops'

A committee of bishops has spent several months coming up with a compromise, and its this that the synod will consider as a possible way forward.

It would give parishes that could not accept the oversight of a woman bishop the right to opt for a like-minded male alternative. These "flying bishops" (or Provincial Regional Bishops in the Church's terminology) would have wide powers to minister to traditionalist parishes, including ordaining all their clergy.

But the compromise is not enough for many traditionalists in the synod.

They are insisting on the creation of a new division or province of the Church with its own archbishop and male-only clergy. For their part groups representing women priests say they won't countenance an arrangement that leaves them as second class clergy.

The bishops who came up the compromise warned that there was no way forward free of pain and risk, and this week's synod may illustrate how rocky the path ahead will be.

Church maintenance

Other issues are more likely to unite the synod. One is a fresh appeal to the government for help in maintaining the 16,000 parish churches and 43 cathedrals. Many are medieval, and the vast majority are listed. The cost of repairs to churches runs at more than a hundred million pounds a year.

The government recently abolished VAT on such repairs, but the Church believes a 50% grant towards them would be justified, because of the benefits church buildings bring to the community.

It says church buildings - and congregations - are a vital source of social services, a location for community activities, and the focal point for tourism.

Another debate will stress the benefits brought by another easily-overlooked resource - the almost 2,000 whole or part-time hospital chaplains provided by the Church.

Healthcare chaplains tend to people at the most vulnerable time in their lives, but they are paid for out of the same NHS budget that funds doctors, nurses, medicine and equipment, and there has been persistent concern that hard-pressed health trusts may see them as dispensable.

Abolition of slavery

Also on the synod's agenda this week is next year's 200th anniversary of the ending of slavery.

Anglicans played a leading role in its abolition. As long ago as the eleventh century, the Bishop of Worcester, Wulfstan, preached a sermon that resulted in the freeing of slaves in Bristol.

William Wilberforce was also an evangelical Anglican, and it was the legislation he brought to Parliament for 20 years in a row, that eventually resulted in the abolition of the slave trade in March 1807.

The synod would probably feel it was a pity for the Church's part in abolition to go unnoticed, and it wants to highlight the continuing slavery inherent in human trafficking.


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