July 11, 2005

Church of England votes to back women bishops

LONDON (Reuters) - The Church of England voted on Monday to
move toward ordaining women bishops, a step which could provoke
an exodus of conservative clergy and deepen the widening splits
within the worldwide Anglican Communion.

A synod meeting in the city of York voted to "remove legal
obstacles" in Church law to women bishops, a process Church
officials say could take about four years to complete.

All three houses of the synod -- the church's parliament --
voted in favor. The most senior house, the House of Bishops,
voted 41 for and only six against.

Bishops play a key role in the hierarchy of Christian
churches since they head dioceses and ordain new priests.
Opening the episcopate, or community of bishops, to women
allows them into the inner sanctum of power in the Church.

But the decision risked putting the Church on a collision
course with its conservatives, who defend the all-male clergy
by saying Jesus Christ chose only men as his Apostles -- the
forerunners of modern bishops.

As the mother church of the 77 million-strong Anglican
Communion, it also risks stiff opposition from sister churches
-- especially in the "Global South" -- already up in arms over
reforms on homosexuality by liberal "northern" churches.

The Communion, which has 38 member churches, is threatened
with schism over decisions by United States Anglicans -- the
Episcopal Church -- to ordain a gay male bishop and Canadian
Anglicans to bless same-sex unions.

In a recent open letter, 17 bishops opposed to opening
their ranks to women urged the synod not to vote on a
resolution that would introduce "new divisions" into the
Church. The letter prompted scores of protests from women

One of the bishops, Andrew Burnham of Ebbsfleet, told the
Sunday Times that he would probably switch to the Roman
Catholic Church -- which vigorously defends its all-male clergy
-- if his church gave women bishops the green light.

"A woman bishop wouldn't be a bishop because a bishop is
someone whose ministry is acceptable through the ages to all
other bishops," it quoted him as saying.

"A Church of England with women bishops would no longer
have a united episcopate. Bishops would not longer be what they
say they are. I would have to leave."

The Church of England now has 108 bishops.

Burnham estimated some 800 priests would leave the Church
in protest. About 300 priests and thousands of churchgoers
abandoned it in the 1990s to protest against women priests.

The Catholic Church has accepted about 200 married Anglican
priests into its clergy in Britain and smaller numbers from
Anglican and Protestant churches in other countries.

Traditionalists have suggested the Church create a third
province, after Canterbury and York, that would have only male
bishops and oversee all Anglicans who would not accept women
bishops or the priests they ordain.

There has been no majority for this among bishops.

Of the 38 member churches in the Anglican Communion, three
-- in Canada, New Zealand and the United States -- have already
ordained women bishops.

Women bishops are allowed in 11 others, although none have
been ordained, while 23 others have no provision for them.
Eight member churches refuse to ordain women as priests or

Women bishops are also allowed in some Protestant churches
in Germany and Scandinavia.