Church of England debates further over women bishops

The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams was facing another test of his authority today as the Church of England embarked on a further round of gruelling debates over the issue of women bishops.

Members of the Church of England's national assembly, the General Synod, were due to begin the first of a series of debates over how to introduce women bishops - and what concessions should be offered to opponents - at a meeting held at York University.

The assembly is to consider draft legislation creating women bishops without the safeguards demanded by objectors such as new dioceses or a special class of bishop to cater for dissenters.

Instead, women bishops would have the authority to make local arrangements for objectors if necessary after referring to a statutory code of practice.

General Synod members are due to debate a series of amendments including proposed concessions to objectors tabled by Dr Williams and the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu.

The two archbishops are proposing a scheme where a male bishop would share the role and responsibilities of a woman bishop - dubbed by some as a "job-share" - in catering for objectors.

Anglo-Catholic objectors have warned that if their demands are not met, then "large numbers" of clergy and lay people could leave for the Roman Catholic Church under an offer for disaffected Anglicans made by Pope Benedict XVI.

But plans to water down the legislation any further have met with opposition from campaigners in favour of women's ordination.

More than 5,000 women have been ordained in the Church of England since 1994 and the number of women in training for the ministry is increasing.

If the legislation before the General Synod is cleared at this meeting the earliest possible date for the first women bishops would be 2014.

The Rev Kay Garlick, chairman of the General Synod business committee, warned the General Synod last night that they faced an "enormous mountain to climb" in dealing with the legislation.