Church of England to decide on women bishops

The Church of England's legislative body will vote Tuesday on whether to introduce women bishops, its biggest and most contentious decision for 20 years.

Female clergy of the Church of England walk to the venue of the three-day Church of England General Synod in central London on November 19. The Church of England's legislative body will vote Tuesday on whether to introduce women bishops, its biggest and most contentious decision for 20 years

The 470-member General Synod kicked off a three-day general assembly on Monday, two decades after England's established state Church backed the introduction of women priests.

Women now make up one third of the Church's clergy but commentators say the vote, which has split traditionalists and liberals, could nonetheless be tight, with The Times newspaper saying it was "on a knife-edge".

The meeting of the General Synod, which is formed of three houses -- bishops, clergy and laity -- is taking place at Church House, in the shadow of Westminster Abbey in central London.

Rowan Williams, who as Archbishop of Canterbury is the Anglican Church's spiritual leader, backs the legislation.

Williams, who steps down in December after 10 years in the role, will be replaced by the Bishop of Durham Justin Welby, who also supports the change.

"Inevitably there is an atmosphere of tension as we allow the process of voting to decide the way forward," said Julian Henderson, the Archdeacon of Dorking, who chairs the General Synod business committee.

"Whichever way the debate and voting goes, there will be anxiety and emotion, but let's handle that moment with grace to one another and in the faith that the Lord is fulfilling His promise to build His Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

More than 1,000 Church of England members, including bishops and senior clergy, signed a letter in The Independent newspaper on Monday urging the Synod to vote in favour of women bishops.

"We believe wholeheartedly that this is the right thing to do, and that the time is now right to do it," they said.

In a letter to The Times on Friday, 325 clergy opposed to the change said going ahead "will lead irrevocably to deep fractures appearing within the Church".

"The Bible teaches -- and the Church has traditionally understood -- that men and women are equal before God and yet have different, complementary, roles in the Church," they said.

The proposals to introduce women bishops have the backing of 42 out of 44 Church of England dioceses.

In order to clear the General Synod, they need a two-thirds majority in all three houses.

While it is thought the plans will get through the bishops and the clergy, it is not clear that the laity will vote in favour by a sufficient margin.

Under the legislation, a woman bishop would delegate to a stand-in male bishop to carry out duties to a parish that objects to her presence.

If approval is given, the legislation will go to parliament before being signed off by Queen Elizabeth II -- who is also the Church of England's supreme governor -- paving the way for the first women bishops in 2014.

Lawmaker Chris Bryant, a former Anglican priest, warned on Monday that parliament could give the legislation a "rough ride".

"If the legislation leans too far towards the traditionalist that won't please the Commons and the legislation would have trouble," he said.

Meanwhile, The Anglican Church of Southern Africa has ordained the first woman bishop on the African continent, officials said Monday.

The consecration of Ellinah Wamukoya, originally from the diocese of Swaziland, took place in the country's economic capital Manzini on Saturday in front of more than 3,000 worshippers.

The Church of England, which separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, claims that four in 10 in England regard themselves as belonging to the CofE. Approximately one million people attend services each Sunday.

It is the mother Church of the 80-million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion.

The communion's first woman bishop was appointed in the United States in 1989 and women bishops have also been chosen in the member Churches of Australia, Canada, Cuba, New Zealand and Southern Africa.

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