LONDON The Church of England decides on Tuesday whether to allow the ordination of women bishops when members take part in an historic vote whose result could prove the first major test for the next archbishop.
Women already serve as Anglican bishops in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, but the Church of England, mother church for the world's 80 million Anglicans, has struggled to reconcile the dispute between reformers and traditionalists on whether to allow them in England.
Commentators say Tuesday's result could hinge on just a few votes and, if negative, could further polarize a church in which conservatives say a male-only clergy is the will of God.
"It will go to the wire ... Liberals will be spewing fire if it doesn't go through. Expect a lot of use of words like 'bigot' and 'misogynist'," said religion commentator Peter Ould, an Anglican priest.
While the Church has already voted to allow women bishops in theory, Tuesday's vote - on provisions to be made for conservatives theologically opposed to senior women clergy - needs to pass before women can be enthroned as Anglican bishops in England.
The dispute centers on ways to designate alternative male bishops to work with traditionalist parishes that reject the authority of a woman bishop named to head their diocese.
The General Synod, the Church's legislative body, is made up of separate houses for bishops, clergy and laity, and needs to reach a two-thirds majority in each house for the motion to succeed.
CHALLENGE TO ARCHBISHOP
Tom Sutcliffe, an opera critic and member of the Synod for over 20 years, said he would be voting against the measure because it did not provide adequately for traditionalists.
"This is a very bad piece of legislation ... I personally do want women bishops, but we have to make proper arrangements for those who don't accept them on religious grounds," he said.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams - who steps down at the end of the year - has strongly supported the reforms, as has his successor Justin Welby, who as an evangelical is seen as more conservative than Williams.
Welby would inherit a "poisoned chalice" if the Synod vote fails, said George Pitcher, an Anglican priest and former adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
"If Welby came in and faced an aborted attempt to make women bishops, it would mark and hobble his entire archbishopric," he said.
About 60 traditionalist clergy, including five male bishops, and about 900 lay members have already switched to the Roman Catholic Church after Pope Benedict welcomed those who had become alienated by the prospect of the changes.
Each of the 44 member churches in the worldwide Anglican Communion can decide for itself whether to allow women bishops.
Many Anglicans in developing countries are strongly opposed to women clergy and many national churches there have formed a parallel group to the Communion to coordinate their efforts against reforms they see changing churches in the West.
If the law is passed, it will be a triumph for supporters who have battled to see women don the mitre, the bishop's hat that signifies the authority to ordain priests, lead dioceses and claim a link back to Jesus's original 12 apostles.
"It will be a cause for rejoicing," said Christina Rees, a Synod member and former chair of the advocacy group Women and the Church (WATCH).
"In a stroke this would communicate something positive and wonderful about the church's attitude to women that it hasn't been able to communicate yet."
About a third of priests in the Church are female but until now women have been barred from the higher echelons of the hierarchy.
The structure of the Synod means a "no" vote would put off the proposed reforms for at least another five years, extending the acrimonious debate.
Ould said Welby's work in conflict resolution should stand him in good stead.
"This is a guy who's gone off to Nigeria where he was nearly kidnapped and killed trying to bring conflicting parties together - I think he can handle the Church of England."
(Editing by Tom Heneghan and Louise Ireland)