Advocates for women bishops last night welcomed the resignation of five Anglican bishops to the Catholic Church saying their departure should help quicken the arrival of full equality within the Church of England.
The five bishops, three of whom are still working bishops, have left the Church of England following prolonged disagreement over the consecration of women bishops, an issue which has bitterly divided the Anglican Church.
The serving bishops that have defected to Rome are the Rt Rev Andrew Burnham, Bishop of Ebbsfleet, the Rt Rev Keith Newton, Bishop of Richborough and the Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Rev John Broadhurst. They will also be joined by the Rt Rev Edwin Barnes, former bishop of Richborough, and the Rt Rev David Silk, who is the former Bishop of Ballarat in Australia.
Bishops Burnham and Newton were known as "flying bishops", a special class of bishops that was created following the consecration of women priests to cater for those Anglo-Catholic dioceses that refused to accept women in clerical positions.
Once women bishops are given the final approval - an event which is expected next year - their posts would have been abolished.
Last night Women and the Church (Watch), which has campaigned in favour of women bishops, released a statement which read: "The decision of the flying Bishops of Ebbsfleet and Richborough, Andrew Burnham and Keith Newton to join the Ordinariate has been widely anticipated. WATCH welcomes the clarification that this announcement brings."
In a statement from Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams announced that he had accepted the resignations "with regret". Referring to the two flying bishops by name he added: "We wish them well in this next stage of their service to the Church and I am grateful to them for their faithful and devoted pastoral labours in the Church of England over many years."
All five bishops will now take up an offer from the Pope to become members of the English Ordinaraite, an initiative for disaffected Anglicans who want to convert but retain some of their spiritual heritage. They are expected to be followed by a small number of fellow Anglo-Catholics. Rome's offer will have little appeal, however, to the larger minority of evangelical traditionalists who are also opposed to women's bishops.
The Church of England's legislative body, the Synod, is expected to vote on fully approving women bishops next year. The earliest they could be serving in the episcopate is 2014.