Twenty years after women were first allowed to become priests, the Church of England is bracing itself for a week of bitter rows over the consecration of female bishops as traditionalists gear up for a last-ditch attempt to stop full equality.
The thorny issue of whether women can hold the most senior positions in the church has dominated Anglican debates for much of the past 10 years. But next week things will come to a head as the church's General Synod – its parliament – votes on a crucial debate that is seen by many within the pro-women lobby as a last-minute attempt to scupper their progress.
Described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as "the most significant set of legislative decisions [Synod] has had to deal with for some 20 years", the issue of women bishops still threatens to tear the church in two. Previous Synods have consistently voted in favour of allowing women to become bishops, in what has been a tortuous and lengthy legislative process for a church that prides itself on welcoming a multitude of opinions. But a minority coalition of traditionalists, conservatives and Anglo-Catholics has always opposed them, believing that Jesus intended men to lead the church.
"Next week is the last opportunity we have got as a Synod to resolve the differences concerning women bishops in a way that promotes unity and does not lead to enormous disruption within the church," says Rod Thomas, chairman of the conservative evangelical group Reform. "It is a potentially very significant moment."
The dissidents have demanded that the church create a separate category of male bishops who are ordained by men only, and therefore able to cater to parishioners who cannot countenance a female bishop. The pro-women lobby argue that such a move would create a two-tier system where women bishops are effectively second-class citizens within their own church. In an attempt to find a compromise and stop mass defections at a time of dwindling church attendance, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, both of whom support women bishops, have risked the wrath of liberals by throwing their support behind a controversial suggestion that would allow traditionalists to reject female leadership. Under their plans, those parishes that feel unable to be led by a woman could request oversight from a male bishop who does not serve under a female.
The same amendment was narrowly defeated in 2010 but has since been resurrected by the Bishop of Manchester, who has argued that Synod should vote on it again. In the opposite corner is the Bishop of Southwark, who has tabled a separate amendment calling on Synod to pass the legislation as it stands.
The row, often described by Synod members as "Manchester vs Southwark", will come to a head on Wednesday, with observers expecting bitter recriminations. If Southwark wins the argument, the likelihood is that women could become bishops by 2014, once the legislation passes on to Synod for final approval in July and then to Parliament. Those opposed to them would either have to leave the church or grudgingly accept their authority. If Manchester wins, the House of Bishops would be under pressure to rework the legislation and provide some sort of opt-out for dissenters.
Guessing which way Synod will vote is difficult. The Church of England prides itself on being a "big tent" that welcomes multiple opinions, and there is a strong feeling that compromises should be made to try to keep the anti-equality faction within the church.
But after two decades of female priests, many believe it is absurd to keep women away from the church's most senior positions. Church of England members are painfully aware that their refusal to allow women to become bishops runs against prevailing opinion that has outlawed such discrimination in non-religious settings. Anglicans in North America, New Zealand, Australia, Cuba and Canada already have women bishops, while Ireland and Scotland permit women bishops, although none has yet been appointed.
Among the more vocal supporters of women bishops there is little appetite for compromise. "If a female diocesan bishop must, in law, share her authority with a male bishop who does not recognise her orders, then her status and authority as a bishop would be called into question," said Hilary Cotton of Women and the Church, which has spearheaded the drive for female bishops. "This would perpetuate the sense that the church is 'not quite sure' that women are fully human and of equal value in the sight of God."
Who will be first? Leading contenders
More than 1,700 women have become clergy since the bar was lifted. Here are some of the front-runners to be first woman bishop.
Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes
A fiercely bright academic, theologian and historian, she is currently a chaplain and fellow at Durham University. Initially an atheist, she converted to Christianity while studying at Cambridge.
One of the first crop of women to be ordained, the Jamaican-born Hudson-Wilkin has been a vocal supporter of female bishops. A vicar in Hackney and a mother of three, she was also recently appointed the first female chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons.
A former canon at St Paul's who served her curacy in Ilford, she is now rector of St James's Church in Piccadilly. A regular contributor to Radio 4's Thought for the Day, she is also a founder adviser to the Christian think tank Theos.