Synod closer to women bishops after bitter debate

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The Independent Online

Plans to appoint women bishops have moved a step closer despite warnings from opponents that the issue will cause a seismic split within the Church of England.

Plans to appoint women bishops have moved a step closer despite warnings from opponents that the issue will cause a seismic split within the Church of England.

The General Synod, the governing body of the Church, voted yesterday, after a bitter, day-long debate, to continue discussions on the subject when it next meets in July. Traditionalists are fiercely opposed to the ordination of women bishops, claiming it goes against biblical teachings and would severely damage relations with the Catholic Church. Church reformers say the current position which allows women to become priests but bars them from more senior positions, is untenable and "embarrassing" for the church's image.

A clear majority of the 500-member Synod voted to continue the debate on women bishops. Members will vote in July on whether to set in train the legislative process that could see the first female bishops take up their posts by 2010.

Christina Rees, of the pressure group Women in the Church, said: "The vast majority of church members want women bishops. Excluding half the human race is increasingly embarrassing."

Anne Foreman, a lay member from Guildford, Surrey, said: "The Church must find fresh ways of proclaiming the gospel into the world in which it is living. That world includes women. I have seen the face of Jesus reflected in women as well as men and I want to see bishops who are women."

However, the extent of opposition was evident in the debate in London. The Rev David Houlding, leader of the Anglo-Catholic group on the Synod, said: "There is a real danger that the Church will break apart over this. It is not simply an issue to do with justice, it's to do with the way God has revealed himself. The bishop has always reflected the fatherhood of God. God's name in the Bible is Father."

Patrick Martin, a lay member from Plymouth, described the proposal as "a breakaway from the tradition of two millennia. Almost another Reformation."

The three branches of the Synod - bishops, clergy and laity - will each have to win a two-thirds majority for women bishops for the reforms to take place. Parliament will then have to ratify the decision.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has not made his views public, but is believed to be in favour of women bishops. A spokesman for the Church of England said: "It will be a long process as we are in uncharted territory here. We need to work out the process, including talking to other Churches and making arrangements for priests who do not want to serve under women bishops."

The Rev David Phillips, director of the evangelical group, the Church Society, warned that hundreds of parishes would refuse to accept the authority of a woman bishop.

The debate over the ordination of women priests a decade ago also caused bitter ructions, with more than 500 parishes still refusing to accept female vicars. About one in five Church of England priests is now female, although it took years from the first Synod debate on women priests to the first ordination.