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Church on brink of schism as synod votes for women bishops

As the votes flickered up on the digital screen hanging inappropriately above the Archbishop of Canterbury it became slowly clear that the Church of England was being rent asunder.

For much of the past decade, the issue of women bishops has threatened to tear apart Britain's state religion. This weekend, it finally did in York when the general synod, the church's legislative assembly, refused to approve safeguards for the minority coalition of conservatives, evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics who feel that female leadership within the church is incompatible with their beliefs.

Barring a last minute reversal today when the synod continues its discussions over how it will consecrate women bishops, the church will signal that it intends to become a place where gender discrimination at its highest levels is officially outlawed.

For supporters of women bishops, this week will be the moment the church finally began to shatter a glass ceiling that would be illegal anywhere outside a religious institution.

But the price of that victory is a communion of believers bitterly divided and shepherded by a leader whose pleas for compromise fell on deaf ears. For Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, this synod was a painful exercise in trying to bridge an unbridgeable chasm.

Were it not for five votes, it could have been a different story altogether.

In an attempt to find a middle way, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York had tabled a proposal which would have created a special class of bishop to look after parishes which do not wish to have female bishops.

The surprise announcement made just weeks before synod met infuriated supporters of women bishops who argued that the amendment would legalise a discriminatory two-tier system. Others recognised it as the only way of keeping the naysayers inside the church.

The amendment received majority backing of 216 votes in favour, compared to 191 against with 9 abstentions. But it needed to win in all three of the synod's bodies – the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of the Laity. While the bishops and laity voted for the compromise, the clergy brought it down by just five votes.

For the leader of the church, it was a humiliating defeat. Of particular embarrassment, many delegates in York said in private, was that 15 bishops voted against the York and Canterbury amendment. One member of the synod said: "It's not a resigning issue but it's clear that Rowan's authority has been sorely questioned. He and John Sentamu stuck they're necks out and they lost."

But supporters of the amendment, such as the evangelical bishop of Winchester, Michael Scott-Joynt, praised the archbishops for trying bravely to keep the church together. "They judged that somebody had to do something otherwise we were going to destroy the church," he said.

As Anglicans spent the day contemplating their troubled future, supporters of women bishops, such as Rachel Weir, the chairwoman of Women and the Church (Watch), could barely contain their delight: "This has been an agonisingly slow journey and the church has rightly wanted to do all it could for those who find this difficult, but we are delighted that Synod has made the right decision," she said.

But even now, the creation of women bishops is far from guaranteed - especially as opponents are banking on scuppering everything in two years time. As long as no one tries to delay the legislation today (a temporary fudge that was being touted by some conservatives), the legislation on women bishops will go back to the dioceses for discussion before appearing at the general synod again for final approval. Only then will it be sent to Parliament and turned into British law.

The difficulty with final approval, however, is that all three houses have to vote in favour by a majority of two thirds. If the motion fails, it is thrown out entirely and cannot be introduced again in same synod term.

The makeup of the 484-seat synod, meanwhile, could be very different by the time final approval is asked for, if the evangelicals, conservatives and Anglo-Catholics get their way. Elections are due this October for the vast majority of the chambers seats and opponents of women bishops only need to win a third of one chamber to trip up women bishops at the last hurdle.

The number of synod members opposed outright to women bishops is a still a small minority, but the Reverend Rod Thomas, a leading figure with Reform, an alliance of evangelicals opposed to women bishops, said he believed the group would grow because of the lack of options that have been made for dissenters.

"Opposition to final approval will become crystalised because of this vote," he said. "And if we can obtain more support at the synod elections we will be more likely to secure enough opposition to stop it going through altogether."

In the meantime, opponents can continue to cause headaches with threats to leave or withdraw financial contributions to the church. On the same weekend synod was debating women bishops, a group of Anglo-Catholics were meeting a senior Catholic bishop in Leicester to discuss the Pope's invitation to them to defect to Rome.

Potential female bishops

June Osborne

Perhaps the Church of England's most senior female cleric, Osborne was one of the first women to be ordained into the priesthood and has been dean of Salisbury since 2004. At 57, time is not on her side. Bishops are expected to retire by the time they reach 70. The earliest Osborne would be consecrated, barring any further delays, is 2014.

Vivienne Faull

The first woman to lead a cathedral, 55-year-old Faull became provost of Coventry in 2000 and is now dean of Leicester. Her position officially has the same seniority as Salisbury, although Leicester is a newer diocese and is regarded as slightly less prestigious.

Lucy Winkett

At 39, Winkett is one of the youngest candidates touted as a potential future woman bishop. A former prefessional singer turned priest, she is currently Canon Pastor at St Pauls and will become rector of St James's, Piccadilly this autumn. She is a founding adviser for the think tank Theos and writes a column for the magazine Third Way.