LONDON – The Church of England faced further division Monday after its ruling body voted to move ahead with steps that would permit women to become bishops without agreeing to compromises meant to accommodate traditionalists opposed to the idea.
The decision came after hours of debate and extraordinary scenes at a meeting of senior church leaders in York, in northern England. One bishop broke down in tears as he described his distress at the church's lack of willingness to accommodate detractors.
"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."
Hundreds of traditionalists have threatened to leave the 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.
But the church leaders 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. .
Church 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. It has provided so-called "flying bishops" to take care of parishes that refuse to accept women as priests.
But as difficult as this issue is, another problem — differing views of the Bible and homosexuality — is 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.
But 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.
Fifteen other Anglican churches around the world have authorized women to serve as bishops. The U.S. Episcopal Church is led by a woman, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori.