Page last updated at 17:34 GMT, Wednesday, 9 July 2008 18:34 UK

Q&A: Anglican Church divisions

By Alex Kirby

The Church of England's General Synod has voted in favour of consecrating women bishops. A Church group will now draw up a code of practice to try to reassure critics, but what will it mean for the Church?

Could recent developments mean the end of the Anglican Church as we know it?

Yes. But that has been true for years, because Anglicans cannot agree over the sexual behaviour of their priests, so this debate over the gender of their bishops just brings the final split a little closer.

About 1,300 clergy say they may leave the Church of England because they cannot accept women bishops, but even if they do that will not itself split the church.

What will the split mean in practice?

The newly-formed Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon), a coalition of traditionalist clergy who challenge the authority of the archbishop of Canterbury, could attract many supporters and might claim to be the "true" Church of England - a claim likely to be disputed by the much larger group which thinks both sex and gender secondary issues for the church.

The traditionalists, though, are often from the richer parishes, and so might expect to wield a disproportionate influence in the fight to be accepted as the true Church.

There will be some defections to other Churches, though perhaps fewer than threatened now. A genuinely new Church seems unlikely, though whatever finally establishes the right to call itself the Church of England may be quite unlike today's version.

It will be 2014 at the earliest before the Church of England can expect to see its first woman bishop in office. But whether it can hold together even till then is increasingly doubtful.

How important is the Anglican Church across the world?

How do you measure any Church's importance? How many divisions does the Pope have, as Stalin once asked. The Anglican Church has over 80 million members in 44 regional and national member churches in 160 countries.

Numerically it is a long way behind the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. But it has tried to offer a relatively liberal and thoughtful brand of Christianity, and to do practical work to ensure there's life before death, never mind after.

What are the ramifications of the Church of England's decision to allow women to become bishops?

In the UK it may strengthen those who say the Church should be disestablished - that it should cease to be the state church of England. It will make it harder to work towards unity with the Catholics: the Vatican says pressing ahead with the ordination of women bishops is a "further obstacle" to reconciliation.

All Catholic clergy today are male. But even the most monolithic of institutions can sometimes change incredibly fast.

Could a parish under traditionalist leadership become part of the Catholic Church?

Yes, though it is unlikely the entire congregation of a parish would jump ship together.

Most bishops described now as traditionalists oppose women bishops, so many parishes in their dioceses would see no need to become Catholics anyway.

Where a bishop who thinks women should become his colleagues heads a diocese, traditionalists may decide to join the Catholic Church. Most Anglicans, though, think the whole issue is irrelevant, and will be happy with bishops of either gender.

Who owns the parishes/church buildings?

Nobody. In 2005 a Church inquiry found that various groups have different rights and duties. Parishioners, for instance, have the right of access for worship, and the right to burial.

The Church council is responsible for repairs and maintenance, and the churchwardens own the building's contents.

But, legally, nobody actually owns England's 16,000 parish churches. Ecclesiastical lawyers may be looking forward to a busy few years.

Will the forthcoming Lambeth Conference make any difference or progress towards healing the divisions?

Progress on healing the Church of Englandís divisions? Unlikely.

Lambeth is for the whole worldwide Anglican Communion, with all the bishops from its 44 independent churches invited - there are more than 800 of them.

So it cannot intervene in what is a purely English (not even British) fight.

Lambeth may make a difference in the worldwide struggle between traditionalists and modernisers, though it is unlikely to avert a final split.

The divisions within global Anglicanism are now so deep that only about 650 bishops have agreed to attend this Lambeth Conference.

And the world beyond the church (yes, there really is one) watches in bemusement as the squabbles continue to grow more bitter.

Alex Kirby is former BBC religious affairs correspondent


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