Church of England moves a step closer to accepting women bishops

Proposals that could see the first female Archbishop of Canterbury will be unveiled on Tuesday, as the Church of England reopens the decade-long controversy over the ordination of women priests.

A report by the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, is seen as a major step towards the appointment of female bishops, following the ordination of women a decade ago.

But the development has been resisted by both the Catholic and evangelical wings of the Church, with some opponents claiming God ordained that a man be at the head of every institution, including the family.

The Church is already grappling with the equally divisive arguments over the appointment of practising homosexuals to the priesthood. Earlier this month the Eames report called on sections of the American Church to repent for the decision to appoint Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, a move that caused resentment in other parts of the Anglican communion, notably in Africa.

The new report, which follows a three-year inquiry, is understood to make few recommendations, but supporters of women bishops are confident that victory is near, with a showdown expected at the next meeting of the Synod, the Church's governing council, in February.

The dioceses of Guildford, Worcester, Ripon and Leeds, Southwark and St Albans have already put forward motions in favour of women bishops.

Two women have so far risen to become cathedral deans: and the Very Rev June Osborne at Salisbury and Vivienne Faull at Leicester are regarded as front runners for a bishopric. Some other countries, notably the US, Canada and New Zealand, already have female bishops.

The report sets out a series of options for resolving the controversy, ranging from upholding the ban on women bishops, to lifting it without reservations. It takes in a series of compromises that include allowing women to be bishops, but not senior ones, and setting up a separate "province" for Anglicans who want nothing to do with female priests.

According to the traditionalist Forward in Faith group, which has been pressing for this separation, the ordination of women remains a critical issue. A prominent FiF member, the Rt Rev John Broadhurst, suffragan to the Bishop of Fulham, recently accused supporters of women bishops within the Church of resorting to "Stalinist" propaganda techniques to get their way.

Christina Rees, the head of the Women and the Church (Watch) campaign for female bishops, welcomed the forthcoming report. "This is another important stage on the way to the appointment of women bishops," she said.

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