War of religion over a woman at St Paul's

The appointment of the first female priest to the staff of St Paul's Cathedral, the heartland of church traditionalists, yesterday led to further acrimony between supporters and opponents of the ordination of women.

Supporters of women priests welcomed the news that the Rev Lucy Winkett, 28, had penetrated the cathedral used by the clergy of the Diocese of London, the largest body of opposition to women priests. Christina Rees, chairwoman of the pressure group Watch - Women and the Church - said: "This is a brilliant step for women priests ... It will give a great deal of confidence to other women priests."

Traditionalists voiced regrets, with one canon announcing his intention to boycott any services of Holy Communion celebrated by Ms Winkett when she takes up her position as minor canon in September. Canon John Halliburton, Chancellor of St Paul's, is entitled to stage such a protest. Under the deal worked out after the decision to ordain women in November 1992, male priests may, if they choose, ignore the ministry of women altogether.

A Church of England spokesman said: "The consciences of both sides are respected ... I also believe he is not saying that he will not work with her, just that he feels he cannot be present when she is presiding. That view can be held with integrity."

Although the cathedral's three minor canons are not on the chapter, Ms Winkett's job is a high-profile one, involving responsibility for much of the organisation of daily worship. Canon Halliburton said he did not even consider Ms Winkett, who was educated at Cambridge University and the Royal College of Music, and is currently curate at St Michael's Church in Little Ilford, Essex, to be a priest.

"I do not believe anyone has the authority to ordain a woman to the priesthood. But that is the fault of the bishop who did so, not her fault. It is nothing personal. I will love her as I love everyone else at the cathedral."

He did not believe Ms Winkett had been the strongest candidate for the position, since she had only been an ordained priest for six months.

But Dr John Moses, the Dean of St Paul's, insisted Ms Winkett had been the best candidate for the post, regardless of her sex.

There were 16 applicants for the position, five of whom were short-listed.

The final decision was made at a meeting of the chapter, with Dr Moses and three of the residentiary canons in favour, and Canon Halliburton abstaining. The fifth residentiary canon was on holiday.

"The decision was made not because she was a woman but because, by a majority, we believed her to be the best candidate and she was in a class of her own musically," said Dr Moses. "We are not in the business of gender politics at St Paul's. We will always seek the best candidate for any position."

The Rev Geoffrey Kirk, national secretary of Forward in Faith, a traditionalist group, said the "inevitable" appointment would further alienate many members of the Diocese of London. But he added: "Ms Winkett is not going to be that importatnt in the long run. It is a tiny skirmish in a long battle which, on the present terms, it is written in the stars we will lose."