LONDON – The Church of England ended one of its longest and most divisive disputes Monday with an overwhelming vote in favor of allowing women to become bishops.
The church's national assembly, known as the General Synod, voted for the historic measure, reaching the required two-thirds majority in each of its three different houses. In total, 351 members of the three houses approved of the move. Only 72 voted against and 10 abstained.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the long-awaited change marks the completion of a process that started more than 20 years ago with the ordination of women as priests. He called for tolerance and love for those traditionalists who disagree with the decision.
"As delighted as I am for the outcome of this vote I am also mindful of whose within the church for whom the result will be difficult and a cause of sorrow," he said in a statement.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called it a "great day for the Church and for equality."
Opponents argued that allowing women into such a senior position in the church goes against the Bible. Others warned that the church should not be guided by secular ethics.
Lay member Lorna Ashworth, who did not support the move, said the church has entered new territory. "This is something we have to work out as we go along," she said.
The Church of England represents diverse religious groups from conservative evangelicals to supporters of gay marriage. Major changes can take years, even decades to bring about.
Two years ago similar legislation narrowly failed to reach the two-thirds majority with lay members, despite the approval from bishops and clergy.
After that vote failed, the church worked to build trust with its lay members, who lagged behind church leaders on the question of female bishops, and make the legislation more acceptable to opponents.
At the same time the church came under increasing pressure from the outside to reform in favor of women. Some of those who changed their vote this time around said they did not want to block changes the majority was happy with.
Monday's vote marks the latest advance of women in the church hierarchy.
The General Synod ruled in 1975 there was no fundamental objection to women becoming priests, but it took nearly two decades for the first women to be ordained.
Things are likely to move faster for aspiring female bishops. Welby told the BBC he expects the first woman bishop in the Church of England by next year.
He was less sure when asked if there will be a female Archbishop of Canterbury in his lifetime: "I've no idea. I'd be delighted if I did."
The Church of England was established by King Henry VIII who appointed himself as its head in 1534. The government still formally appoints the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the church, and Queen Elizabeth II serves as its supreme governor.
Parliament maintains a role in church affairs, and will be called upon to ratify the female bishop legislation. Some 26 bishops are allocated seats in the House of Lords.
The Church of England is part of the global Anglican Communion with 77 million members in more than 160 countries. The Episcopal Church in the Unites States was the first member to have a woman bishop and is now led by a woman.