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Last Updated: Monday, 16 January 2006, 22:46 GMT
Anglicans get women bishops plan
By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent

Church of England clergy
Deep divisions have stretched the church to breaking point
A Church of England group has devised a compromise designed to allow the ordination of women bishops without causing a split in the Church.

A report suggests a group of male bishops - so called "flying bishops" - could work in parishes unwilling to accept the authority of a woman.

The working party of bishops given the task of finding a way to ordain women as bishops and keep the Church together at the same time showed on Monday that it was under no illusion as to the challenge it faced.

Its chairman, the Bishop of Guildford Christopher Hill, modestly acknowledged that it was untidy, and far from a perfect solution. He added ominously that "no course of action is free from pain and risk".

The deep divisions in the Church over sexuality have already stretched its unity to breaking point.

Argument 'settled'

The last thing it needs is another protracted dispute about an issue as fundamental as whether women should be bishops. But there are two factors playing in the Church's favour.

One is that at the most basic level the argument was settled more than 10 years ago when the Church decided to ordain women as priests.

Some 480 traditionalist clergy left the Church of England, mostly for the Roman Catholic Church (although 70 came back), and perhaps the bulk of those who felt most strongly are now absent from the debate.

The other saving grace is that the split over women bishops (and women priests for that matter) cuts across the Church in a different way from that about sexuality.

Woman priest
Women have served as priests for the last 11 years

One of the most destructive elements of the divisions over sexuality is that it divides Anglicans down the historic line between its Protestant evangelical and Anglo-Catholic wings, widening an already vulnerable fault-line.

The minority that now opposes women bishops is centred on traditionalist Anglo-Catholics, but includes evangelicals who believe the bible teaches the concept of male headship in the Church.

In addition to that, some of those keenest to see women in the episcopate are Anglo-Catholics, but liberal ones.

None of this means the dispute will be easy to defuse.

Messy compromise

The Guildford Committee considered three options, the most progressive being a simple "single-line clause" opening the way to women bishops without enshrining in canon law any concessions to opponents.

Then there was the demand by many traditionalists for their own separate division of the Church, sometimes referred to as a third province, operating alongside the provinces of York and Canterbury.

Finally there was the messy compromise, "an honest acknowledgement", as the Guildford Report admits, "of our frailty and division in this hugely significant area of our life".

Greater opposition is likely to come from traditionalists with deep-seated objections to serving under the authority of women bishops

It is likely that few will be truly happy with the compromise.

There is evidence from inside the House of Bishops' meeting last week, that although they were content for it to be debated by synod, a substantial minority would have liked to move directly to include women among their number.

But the greater opposition is likely to come from traditionalists with deep-seated objections to serving under the authority of women bishops.

Some insist - as they did when women were ordained as priests - that Jesus' choice of only men as his apostles shows that priesthood and leadership in the Church should be reserved to men.

They also point to the long tradition of the chain of episcopal authority which has been passed down by the laying-on of hands by male bishops, which stretches back to the early Church.

Second exodus?

They argue that if the Church of England decides "unilaterally" to ordain women bishops it will set back relations with other churches, such as the Roman Catholics.

They maintain that only a separate "third province" would ensure that they did not come under the care of a woman bishop, or have to work with clergy whose ordination by a woman bishop some time in the future, they did not regard as valid.

They seem unlikely to get that autonomy, so there might be a second exodus from the Church. Traditionalists have warned that hundreds of their numbers will go.

If they do, there won't be the generous financial provisions that were used over a decade ago to sugar the pill of women priests.

A new mood is discernible, one that says it cost too much to provide for clergy jumping ship last time round, and that with women bishops on the cards for at least 10 years, those who felt that strongly have had plenty of time to decide.


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