LONDON – The Church of England's ruling body voted its support Monday for women to become bishops, a move that risks further division because it lacked accommodation for traditionalists opposed to the idea.
The decision after hours of debate among leaders of the British church came even as the Anglican church worldwide wrestles with the more contentious issues of a gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex marriages.
The Vatican said Tuesday that the Church of England's decision will be an obstacle to reconciliation between the two churches.
One bishop broke down in tears at the meeting of senior British church leaders in York, in northern England, as he described his distress at the church's lack of willingness to accommodate the traditionalists.
"I feel ashamed," said the Right Rev. Stephen Venner, Bishop of Dover, who is in favor of women bishops. "We have talked for hours about wanting to give an honorable place to those who disagree. We have been given opportunities for both views to flourish. We have turned down every, almost realistic opportunity for those who are opposed, to flourish."
More than a dozen other Anglican churches around the world have authorized women to serve as bishops. The Episcopal church, the Anglican body in the U.S., is led by a woman, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Hundreds of traditionalists have threatened to leave the British church if sufficient safeguards were not put into place for those who objected. Advocates of women in the episcopate had argued that any concessions would effectively make women second-class bishops.
The synod — composed of bishops, clergy and laity — rejected compromise proposals for new "super bishops" who would cater to objectors. Some traditionalists believe church leaders should be men, as was Jesus and the 12 apostles.
The Archbishops of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said he did not want to limit the authority women bishops had within the church.
"I am deeply unhappy with any scheme or any solution to this which ends up, as it were, structurally humiliating women who might be nominated," he said.
Both sides conceded that tradition of male-only bishops would be changed, and the lengthy debate centered on what accommodation would be given to dissenters. The governing body postponed a final decision by agreeing to draw up a code of practice due next year.
Women bishops unlikely before 2014Church of England officials say it is unlikely that any woman would be consecrated as a bishop before 2014. The church has ordained women as priests since 1994, but hasn't allowed them to become bishops.
The women's ordination vote also might complicate Anglican relations with the Roman Catholic Church, which does not ordain women. Leaders of the two traditions have been meeting regularly in an effort to find unity.
But as difficult as the issue is, the differing views of the Bible and homosexuality have been more divisive to the overall communion, a 77 million-member family of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England. It is the third-largest grouping of churches in the world, behind Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and has always held together different views.
Already, Williams, the Anglican spiritual head, is under intense pressure in the buildup to this month's Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade gathering of all Anglican bishops, over the homosexuality issue. Some traditionalist Anglican bishops are boycotting the meeting, which opens July 16.
At a meeting in Jerusalem in late June of conservative Anglicans from Africa and some north American and British churches, participants expressed outrage at what they consider a "false gospel" that has led churches in the United States, Canada and elsewhere to accept gay relationships.
Long-standing divisions over how Anglicans should interpret the Bible erupted in 2003 when the U.S. Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church comprises only a tiny part of the world's Anglicans. But the wealthy U.S. denomination covers about one-third of the communion's budget.
Within the Episcopal Church, most parishioners either accept gay relationships or don't want to split up over homosexuality. However, a small minority of Episcopal traditionalists are fed up with church leaders.