LONDON — The Church of England national assembly decided Monday that women should be allowed to become bishops, making only minor concessions to theological conservatives who have threatened to break away over the issue.
Dioceses will now consider the draft law, which would leave it up to individual bishops to allow alternative oversight for traditionalists who object to serving under women bishops. The dioceses must report back by 2012 and a final vote by the ruling body, the General Synod, will still be needed, but supporters say a milestone has been passed.
"The decision to consecrate women as bishops has been taken," said church spokesman Lou Henderson. "Everybody recognized the importance of offering safeguards and assurances to those who find it very difficult (to accept women bishops), but in the end Synod as a whole was not prepared to go as far as the traditionalists would have liked."
The decision was not final and still faced many hurdles.
After the dioceses make a decision over the draft law, the Synod will need to hold a final vote to approve it. That could be complicated by the formation and desires of the next incoming assembly, Henderson said.
If approved, the first women bishops could be appointed in 2014.
The decision is an important step for the governing Synod, which has for decades been debating whether to let women become bishops with the same status as male bishops. Traditionalist Anglicans – believing that allowing women to be bishops is contrary to the Bible – oppose the move and say the decision could result in many leaving the Church of England. Others, however, argue that the church cannot afford to be seen as stuck in the past with out-of-date values.
Anglican churches in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Cuba already have women bishops, Henderson said. The Church of England began ordaining women to the priesthood in 1994.
At a meeting at York University over the weekend, the Synod narrowly voted down proposals to impose restrictions on the authority of female bishops.
Traditionalists had proposed a structure that guaranteed more conservative parishes would be supervised by male bishops and led by male priests who were not ordained by a female bishop. Under that proposal, the alternative bishop would have had some legally backed independence from a woman bishop.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who leads the church, and Archbishop of York John Sentamu tried to rally support for that plan to keep the church unified.
But the ruling assembly rejected that proposal, which would create, in effect, "second-class bishops," Henderson said. Instead, the body decided that women bishops could choose to delegate their power to an alternative bishop if they so wish – and they will also have the power to dictate what functions the alternative bishop carries out.
Although campaigners in favor of women bishops rejoiced, some religious leaders said they faced hard decisions with the news and expressed concerns that traditionalists were running out of options.
"The scope for remaining in the Church of England is getting more and more narrow and the options are rapidly closing," the Rev. David Houlding, a leading member of the Catholic Group on the General Synod, told the Press Association.
"I am staying in the Church of England for the time being until I am driven out. I am not going willingly, I will only go if forced," he said.