LONDON, July 9 – The Church of England was facing a serious split Tuesday after its ruling General Synod voted to allow women bishops despite threats by more than 1,300 clergy that they would quit over the issue.
The Synod, the church’s legislative body, voted late Monday to press ahead with the ordination of women bishops and rejected the legal safeguards demanded by traditionalists.
The Synod members voted to approve the drawing-up of a statutory national code of practice to accommodate parishes and clergy who object to women bishops on grounds of conscience.
That fell short of demands by traditionalists, who had wanted new dioceses to be created for parishes and clergy opposed to women bishops.
The Synod also rejected compromise proposals to create a new order of three male "super bishops" to cater for objectors.
The crunch vote at the University of York in northern England followed a passionate six-hour debate which pitched conservatives against liberals and ended with one bishop in tears as he said he was "ashamed" of the Church of England.
The Rt Rev Stephen Venner, the Bishop of Dover in southeast England, who supports women bishops, said the failure to agree to create "super bishops" meant that every opportunity to allow objectors to "flourish" with the Church had been blocked.
"I have to say, Synod, for the first time in my life, I feel ashamed," he said.
Bishops voted to bring forward legislation to ordain women bishops by 28 to 12, clergy were in favour by 124 to 44 and lay people by 111 to 68.
The Church of England, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, is the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has about 77 million followers.
It first ordained women priests in 1994 amid a storm of controversy.
For conservatives, women and gay clergy — an issue which has also caused bitter splits in the church in recent years — cast doubt on the interpretation of Christianity’s sacred text, the Bible.
But liberals argue it is time to take a more inclusive approach.
"It seems to me a total nonsense that the church proclaims a gospel of equality for all while seeming to categorise some of its ordained ministers as unacceptable," Reverend Ferial Etherington was quoted as saying by The Times newspaper in the debate.
The Church of England’s two most senior figures — Williams and John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York — reportedly favoured a compromise which would satisfy both sides.
Sentamu, who was born in Uganda, said: "There is a wonderful African saying: ‘He who travels fast, travels alone and he who travels far, travels in the company of others.’
"I would like to travel in company with everybody in the church."
A total of 1,333 clergy have threatened to leave the Church of England if they are not given legal safeguards to set up a network of parishes that would remain under male leadership.
Traditionalists could now quit the Church ahead of its once-a-decade meeting, known as the Lambeth Conference, which starts in the southern English city of Canterbury next week.
"It is getting worse. It is going downhill very badly. It is quite clear there is a pincer movement and we are being squeezed out," a leading traditionalist, Father David Houlding, told The Times.
Liberals and conservatives have been at odds over the ordination of homosexual clergy since the consecration of openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in the United States in 2003.
Nearly 300 conservative Anglican bishops and archbishops formed a breakaway movement, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FOCA), after a conference in Jerusalem last month.
FOCA claims to represent half of the world’s Anglicans and many of its members say they will stay away from the Lambeth Conference.