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Breakthrough? Church of England moves step closer to women bishops as General Synod backs new proposals

Church governing body votes massively in favour to support their introduction - but with guidance for parishes that reject female ministry

The Church of England's General Synod has voted in favour of proposals for women bishops by a massive majority, paving the way for legislation that could be passed as early as next year.

Members of the Church's governing body voted 378 in favour and eight against, with 25 abstentions, allowing measures for the introduction of women bishops to move on to the next stage in negotiations.

Those in favour of the plans were warned not to “open the champagne bottles” just yet, as there are still “major issues” to be resolved before any practical changes can be set in stone.

The new proposals which were broadly agreed upon today involve a simple piece of legislation that would allow women to become bishops and archbishops, accompanied by a “declaration” by the Church of England setting out guidance for parishes which reject female ministry on traditionalist, ideological grounds.

Today's decision marks a turnaround heralded by one bishop as “nothing short of miraculous”, after exactly one year ago today legislation for women bishops was rejected at the final hurdle by just six votes in the House of Laity.

That decision was described by the Women and the Church campaign group as “a devastating blow for the Church of England and the people of this country”.

While those proposals included a strict and complex “code of practice” for dissenting parishes, the new package lays out plans for an ombudsman, or independent reviewer, that would rule on disputes at a local level.

The vote could pave the way for final approval of women bishops by the General Synod in July next year.

Yet there remains some way to go before legislation can be drafted that appeases both the leading conservative evangelicals on one side and the campaigners on the other, who say any contingency plans - like those for so-called “flying” male bishops - will do no more than create “second-class” women bishops.

“We should not open the champagne bottles or whatever drink we regard as celebratory because we need to agree to work together until the end,” said the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.

The Rt Rev Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark, said: “From where we are today, compared to where we were a year ago, it is as someone said to me the other day 'nothing short of miraculous'.”

Canon Rosie Harper, from the Oxford Diocese, speaking to the General Synod, said people outside the Church of England viewed a community still arguing over discrimination in the 21st century as “weird”.

The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev James Langstaff, briefing journalists afterwards, said: “Although we are hugely encouraged by a vote of 378 in favour and eight against, that is not a cause for complacency.

“There is a lot of work still to be done. People will have voted in favour of this to continue the process who may or may not vote in favour of the package at the end of the day.

“So it is not over and that is a reality.”

Prime Minister David Cameron hailed the progress made today. Speaking in the Commons, he said that he would work with the Church on fast-tracking women's passage to the House of Lords, allowing them a visible presence in Parliament “as soon as possible”.

He said: “I strongly support women bishops and I hope the Church of England takes this key step to ensure its place as a modern church, in touch with our society.”