The Church of England could see the appointment of the first female Archbishop of Canterbury under proposals published today for the consecration of women bishops.
All bishops' posts including the See of Canterbury would be open legally to women under the plans put forward in a Church of England House of Bishops document.
However, the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) would be given statutory authority to judge whether the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion was ready for a female Archbishop of Canterbury.
Under the proposals, a move which would mean such a change could only be envisaged a long way in the future.
The Guildford group report, chaired by the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Rev Christopher Hill, puts forward compromise proposals for the Church of England for the consecration of women bishops.
The document suggests a scheme entitled Transferred Episcopal Arrangements (TEA) which would allow for the appointment of a group of male bishops who would care for parishes which rejected women bishops.
The document rejects calls from traditionalists who want to set up a separate division of the Church to administer to opponents of female bishops.
The Church of England first ordained women priests in 1994, a move which sparked controversy and resulted in a walkout by some traditionalists. More than 1,000 parishes have voted to reject women priests.
The document notes that the earliest date at which the first episcopal appointment might be open to a woman would probably by 2012. It warns against giving too much prominence to the issue of a female Archbishop of Canterbury.
"It is quite likely to be some time after the admission of women to the episcopate before there would be both a vacancy and a female candidate for the primacy," it says.
"Vacancies do not arise very often - in the whole of the 20th century there were just nine."
The report will be debated next month at the General Synod of the Church of England with a further debate scheduled in July.
In the introduction to the report Bishop Hill said: "We do not minimise the difficulty the choices now facing the Church. There is no course of action, including the status quo, that is free of pain and risk."
At a news conference in London he said none of the proposals were 'set in stone'.
He said: "Critics will have the chance to demonstrate where we have gone wrong and the Synod will then have the opportunity to weigh both the merits and objections to our proposals."
He said the bishops had attempted to 'make a space' or a 'room' for those within the Church of England who cannot accept women bishops.
"Even if some want wholly open plan arrangements, while others want a semi-detached, or even a separate house, we believe the Church of England should have enough rooms - with inter-connecting doors - in our traditionally inclusive household of faith."
The proposals come after the General Synod voted last July to begin the process which could lead to the consecration of women bishops.
The move comes amid a row over the ordination of openly gay priests.Reuse content