Page last updated at 16:19 GMT, Tuesday, 12 July 2005 17:19 UK

Church faces women bishops split

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent

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

For such a momentous event the vote approving in principle the ordination of women bishops was a muted affair.

The Synod - meeting in York University's Central Hall - heard the result in silence.

It was three to one in favour of starting the process of drawing up legislation that would fundamentally change the Church.

Outside the hall, women clergy were jubilant.

Christina Rees, of the campaign group Women and the Church, said the decision was historic, an affirmation of the 11-year-long service of women as priests.

"We will look back at July 11 2005", she said, "and wonder why it took us so long".

The reason why it has taken so long, is that it's a profound, church-changing, development.

Separate camps

The Anglican Church inherited from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches a tradition dating back to the time of Jesus' apostles, of male-only priests, who ordained their successors with a laying on of hands, imbuing them with the authority of teachers and leaders.

The opposition falls into two separate camps. The catholic wing of the Anglican Church takes a more exalted view of priesthood generally, and the significance of bishops in particular.

They focus on Jesus' choice only of men to be his apostles, insisting that it's a clear sign that clergy should also be male.

Conservative evangelicals - who are more likely to see priests more as the first among equals among their congregations - maintain that the bible prohibits women from leadership in the Church.

More than the four hundred or so clergy who left the Church when women became priests could be ready to quit over women bishops

The two groups - who disagree vehemently over other issues such as homosexuality - are united in opposing the ordination of women bishops.

But the nature of this latest split in the Church means that it probably doesn't pose the same danger as that over the ordination of gay clergy or the blessing of same-sex relationships.

Homosexuality divides the two wings - Anglo-Catholic and Protestant - which the Church has had ever since it broke away from Rome at the Reformation.

It drives apart the two constituent traditions of the Anglican Church, which coexist despite a degree of mutual alienation.

The dispute over women bishops, on the other hand, cuts across these old fault-lines, and is likely to be less destructive.

'Begining of the end'

But it will be bad enough, especially if the traditionalists don't get the protection they are demanding.

There are claims that far more than the 400 or so clergy who left the Church when women became priests, would be ready to quit over women bishops.

One leading Anglo-Catholic, former Archdeacon of York George Austin, said: "It's the beginning of the end for people like us."

The leader of the Catholic Group on the Synod, Fr David Houlding, said: "Unless there's proper provision, there will be a great haemorrhage of clergy, far more than after women were priested."

Traditionalists say it's been easy enough simply to avoid women priests, but women bishops would inevitably ordain other clergy, and they would regard those clergy as not properly ordained - not real priests.

It will take a debate of three or four years to decide the details

They say they would no longer be able to tell whether a priest presiding over Holy Communion was truly qualified to do so.

Some are demanding their own province, or division, of the Church. This Third Province would be restricted to male clergy.

Others might be satisfied with an extension of the system of like-minded "flying" bishops, sheltering them from supervision by a man or woman unsympathetic to them.

It will take a debate of three or four years to decide the details.

The options currently on the table include restricting women to assistant bishops' posts, or episcopal teams that include at least one man.

The debate will be passionate and it may not be pretty. It's not likely to produce the first woman bishop for at least five years.

video and audio news
See female speakers at the General Synod

Women bishops have 'vast support'
10 Jul 05 |  Berkshire
Women priests: The first 10 years
10 Mar 04 |  Bristol/Somerset

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