Synod must decide on women bishops

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The General Synod of the Church of England is likely to be invited to decide the vexed question of allowing women bishops next summer, it emerged today.

The General Synod of the Church of England is likely to be invited to decide the vexed question of allowing women bishops next summer, it emerged today.

The development came as the House of Bishops working party on women in the episcopate published its long-awaited report into the controversial issue.

The working party looked at the options facing the church, and did not come down in favour of any of them.

The issue has continued to divide the Church. Its first female priests were ordained in 1994 and supporters of women bishops believe it is illogical to continue to bar them from the episcopate.

Opponents believe God ordained that a man should be at the head of every institution.

The options considered by the working party, headed by the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, range from maintaining the status quo, making specific arrangements within the Church for those who cannot conscientiously accept women bishops, or the creation of another province for such people.

A Church of England spokesman said: "The important theological issues covered by the Rochester Report will be debated by the Synod in February.

"The Synod will also have the opportunity, on the basis of a motion from the House of Bishops, to consider what the next steps should be.

"Synod will be invited to agree that, following a period of reflection on the report, there should be a decision at the July Synod on whether to embark on the process of removing the legal obstacles to ordaining women as bishops."

The report concludes with a plea for harmony within the Church.

It says: "This world will one day pass away and the ecclesiastical structures on which we expend so much time and energy, important though they are, will pass away with it.

"In the light of this fact, we need to give the highest priority to deepening the quality of our love for the other members of the body of Christ, perhaps especially those with whom we most strongly disagree on issues such as the ordination of women to the episcopate."

Dr Nazir-Ali told reporters later that if the Synod makes a decision in principle in favour of women bishops in July, it could ask for further proposals on legislation.

"From the point of introduction of legislation to that becoming law, there is a minimum of four years, if everything goes well," he said.

The working party had looked at how bishops emerged in the history of the Church, and how the ministry of women had emerged.

"We have done this with our Bibles open," he said.

"During the time the party was at work, it was 'quite difficult emotionally and psychologically' for people of opposing views to hear the other out," he said.

"But they did do so," he added.

Asked if the problem could be solved, he said: "We have tried to show in the report that it is a soluble problem, if the Church wants to make a decision that is not maintaining the status quo, that is.

"If the Church decides after due consideration to ordain women to the episcopate, we think it will be possible, given goodwill on every side, to maintain the unity of the Church."

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Dr Rowan Williams and Dr David Hope, issued a statement welcoming the report, saying: "We are happy to commend it for prayerful study within the dioceses of the Church of England and to invite other Churches in the Anglican communion and our ecumenical partners to let us have their reflections on it."