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Church of England to vote on women bishops

The Rt. Rev. Justin Welby, the newly appointed archbishop of Canterbury and future leader of the Church of England, made one thing clear at his first press conference: he is in favor of women becoming bishops.

It's a contentious issue that has come to threaten the long-term unity of the Church of England, and a historic vote on the matter will take place Tuesday in London at an extraordinary meeting of the General Synod, the Church's governing body. 

"I will be voting in favor," Welby told assembled reporters covering the announcement of his appointment, "and join my voice to many others in urging the Synod to go forward with this change."

Those in favor of female bishops have been vocal: more than 1,000 members of the clergy and senior laity signed a letter published in several British newspapers Monday urging support for this issue.

In 1989, Barbara Harris made history in Massachusetts when she became the first woman ordained as a bishop in what is known as the Anglican Communion, an international association of Anglican Churches with about 85 million members worldwide. The archbishop of Canterbury is the symbolic leader of this movement but he has no authority outside England.

Twenty-three years later the Church of England still has no female bishops in its hierarchy, an issue that has been bitterly debated for more than a decade. Women were ordained priests for the first time in England in 1994, and today one in five Church of England priests is female.

A clear majority of both priests and churchgoers are in favor of women bishops, but problems have arisen over how to provide for the minority of parishes -- about 3 percent across the country -- that are opposed to women bishops on the grounds that it goes against the Bible's teachings.

There is a fervent desire to accommodate these traditionalist parishes and avoid splitting the church, but agreeing on a language to appease their concerns without being discriminatory against women has proven difficult.

Dr. Rowan Williams, the outgoing archbishop of Canterbury, has devoted much time during his 10-year tenure to brokering a compromise.

Williams sought compromise on a language that would allow parishes to choose to be served by a male bishop who "respects" their views -- for example, a bishop who was never involved in the ordination of a woman. The wording of earlier versions of this compromise was deemed to be discriminatory against women, but it's hoped that the latest version of the text is sufficiently nuanced to be accepted by all.

Speaking after delivering a sermon to a congregation of several hundreds, Hugh Palmer, the rector of All Souls Langham Place, said he fears agreement at the Synod will be hard to reach. He thinks the provisions being made for those opposed are acceptable, but wonders how easy it will be for their needs to be met in 10 years' time.

Ironically, given the problems the upcoming vote is causing for church leaders, many in Palmer's congregation admit to not having given the matter any thought.

"In my day-to-day life as a Christian this is not the biggest issue," says one churchgoer.

Jane Ross, visiting from Scotland, commented: "Women bishops. I don't know what all the fuss is about."

But another parishioner, who didn't want to be named, argues: "It is not in the Bible. If we walk away from what God said - what is left?"

The motion has to be endorsed by two thirds of the Synod - which has three levels, representing bishops, the priests and the laity, respectively. Results are expected to be particularly close in the third category.

If the motion does not pass, it will be seen as damaging to the unity of the Church of England, and a blow to the legacy of Rowan Williams. A failure to pass will also cast a dark shadow over the beginning of Welby's tenure as archbishop. 

Either way, there is yet another contentious issue headed straight to the archbishop's intray - that of whether to allow gay weddings to be officiated in the church. The road ahead is far from smooth.

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