Revolt over ordination of women fails to move laity

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OPPONENTS of women priests were privately admitting last week that their revolt is largely confined to the clergy. Estimates of the number of priests who might leave the Church of England in protest range from 50 to 1,000 - one- tenth of the 10,000 active priests. But nothing like that proportion of laity will leave the Church.

The largest clerical group against women's ordination claimed to have 3,500 members on its mailing list. The largest lay group, Women Against the Ordination of Women, had only twice as many members. Even if all these women were to leave they would represent less than 0.1 per cent of the regular congregation.

One opponent of women's ordination said last week that she did not foresee a single congregation leaving the Church of England, even in London where resistance is most concentrated.

The difficulty for opponents is threefold. First, the split over women priests runs through almost every congregation in the country, not between them. Second, church buildings will remain under the control of the mainstream Church of England, whatever happens to individual priests.

Third, the compromise reached last week over 'low-flying bishops' gives most of the laity opposed to women priests everything they want. The only people who cannot accept last week's compromise are those who adhere to the theory of 'episcopal taint', which Margaret Orr-Deas of the Movement for the Ordination of Women described yesterday as 'sexist voodoo'.

But several hundred male priests, mainly Anglo-Catholic, appear to subscribe to it. They believe that if a bishop lays hands on a woman to ordain her, he breaks with that act the magical chain transmitting his powers all the way from the Twelve Disciples. He becomes a heretic, as do any men he subsequently ordains.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, said all the bishops rejected a theology of episcopal taint, but that they were prepared to minister to those who believed it - a compromise that might work with goodwill. But as the opponents of women priests met in London to discuss it, little goodwill could be discerned.