LONDON (Reuters) - The Church of England could restrict the powers of some women bishops under a plan designed to end a rift between traditionalists who want to keep the all-male senior clergy, and liberals demanding equality.
The proposal has reignited the long-running debate over a supposed ecclesiastical "stained-glass ceiling" that stops women from attaining the most senior roles in the church.
Along with homosexual bishops and same-sex marriages, the ordination of women is among the most divisive issues facing the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members worldwide.
While Anglicans in the United States, Canada and Australia already have women bishops, conservatives in many other parts of the Communion strongly oppose them. They say there is nothing in the Bible or church history to support women bishops.
Liberals, who argue that women should be treated equally, said the latest proposals to allow women bishops, albeit with reduced powers in some areas, risked creating a two-tier church.
The Church of England body reviewing the law on women bishops, the Revision Committee, has voted to change the rules to remove certain powers from female bishops in dioceses where they face opposition from traditionalists.
Specially-appointed male bishops would assume those powers and the new system would be written into British law, the committee said in a statement on Thursday.
"Where there are parishes who don't recognize women bishops and want to look to another bishop, that diocesan bishop's duties and responsibilities to those parishes would be reduced automatically," a Church of England spokesman said. "Those duties would pass to this other bishop."
The committee has yet to decide which powers would be removed, although reports suggested they could include things like the right to hold confirmation services.
The committee's proposals must first win the support of regional church groups before being put to the General Synod, the church's decision-making body, and then parliament.
"It is unlikely that the first female bishop will be consecrated before 2014," the committee said in a statement.
Rod Thomas, chairman of Reform, a conservative Anglican group, said the proposal was a "sensible compromise" that will help to avoid a deeper split on the issue.
"It represents a compromise. It doesn't go as far as some wanted, it goes further than some liberals wanted," he said. "It is a way in which nobody can lose."
However, supporters of women bishops said the proposed law change would discriminate against senior female clergy.
"You are legislating this schism into existence and you are creating a two-tier church, a category of second-class bishops," Ruth McCurry, who chairs a group that campaigns for the ordination of women bishops, told the Guardian newspaper.
Editing by Michael Roddy