Women bishops row renews fears of Anglican church split

  • @emilydugan

The Archbishop of Canterbury was struggling yesterday to prevent warring factions within the Church of England from splitting over the ordaining of female bishops. When the 484 members of the church's General Synod reconvene in York tomorrow, the church's unity will be precariously balanced.

Dr Rowan Williams won an early boost when members voted to "take note" of draft legislation on creating female bishops, but later suffered a setback when his amendment to appease traditionalists was voted down.

Although the Synod has voted in favour of female bishops, it is now hoping to appease traditionalist factions who are threatening to abandon the church over the issue. This threat was made more urgent following the offer from Pope Benedict last year that the disaffected would be welcome in the Catholic Church. The move to appease traditionalists, put forward jointly with the Archbishop of York, Dr john Sentamu, proposed three new dioceses run by male bishops to cater for those objecting to change. The move was rejected by 258 votes to 134, with eight abstentions.

Faced with the almost impossible task of balancing the wishes of traditionalists, who want to be protected from female bishops, and supporters of women's ordination, a compromise is proving tricky. The debate is expected to continue until Tuesday.

Dr Williams insisted earlier that the concessions did not represent a "loyalty" test to himself and Dr Sentamu. "We should be very disappointed if this was seen as some kind of covert loyalty test. Synod must scrutinise our suggestion in the way it would scrutinise any other," he said

The divisions have prompted speculation that Dr Williams might step down. Downing Street and the Church of England both denied reports that No 10 has ordered a briefing paper on how the Prime Minister should respond in the event that Dr Williams suddenly resigned.