`Now we want a woman bishop'

THE CHURCH of England is being forced to confront the prospect of female bishops, five years after the ordination of the first women priests.

Now that the church has ordained almost 2,000 women, and has seen some rise to relatively senior positions, there is growing pressure for an amendment to canon law so that they can join "the management".

The Archdeacon of Tonbridge, the Ven Judith Rose, has tabled a private member's motion calling on the House of Bishops to study the theological issues surrounding the consecration of women. The motion is likely to be debated by the General Synod this year and will require the bishops to report back within two years.

"We are having to live with two strongly differing views. It is important that we work through how to handle it," said Archdeacon Rose, the most senior woman in the church.

It is hard to see how the present compromise, with "flying bishops" providing pastoral services to opponents of women priests, can continue once women have been consecrated as bishops. At such a time, traditionalists believe the only way forward would be the formation of a "Free Province".

"There can be no theological objections to a Free Province since the notion of provincial autonomy was invented in order to render the ordination of women possible," said the Rev Geoffrey Kirk, national secretary of the campaigning organisation Forward in Faith. "A Third Province, like Canterbury and York but without geographical boundaries, would give us our freedom to go and live our own lives in our own way."

This Friday is the fifth anniversary of the ordination of the first women priests at Bristol Cathedral. For some, it will be a time of celebration, for others a sombre occasion. Women now comprise 10 per cent of parochial clergy and one-third of non-stipendiary priests. Some work as chaplains in prisons, hospitals and higher education, and 11 are cathedral clergy.

Christina Rees, chairwoman of Watch (Women and the Church), is organising a day of celebration in Bristol on 20 March at which The Rev Angela Berners- Wilson, who by alphabetical accident was the first woman ordained, will speak.

However, no-one can ignore the 440 priests who left the church in protest after the 1992 decision, many taking parishioners with them. A decision to allow women bishops would likely prompt a second exodus. "Some people who did not leave the church over the ordination of women will feel compelled to go over the consecration of women," said Ms Rees, a lay member of General Synod.

The earliest that women are likely to be consecrated is 2004, by which time there will be plenty of qualified candidates. "They already have five years of priestly experience as well as, in some cases, 25 years in a previous profession," said Ms Rees. "They cannot live up to the ideal that some people have of them as a combination of the Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa and an angel, but we are talking about incredibly competent, capable and patient women."

Archdeacon Rose will never become a bishop. "It's not going to happen, because of my age," she said. "I've turned 60 so I shall have retired before there are women bishops. I've got a lot to be grateful for, but it's for the next generation to explore other opportunities."