Church of England paves way for women bishops

LONDON (Reuters) - The Church of England has moved a step closer to the consecration of women bishops, setting up a possible showdown with traditionalists who back all-male clergy in the Anglican communion.

Draft legislation introduced at the weekend said women should be consecrated as bishops on the same basis as men, disappointing the Anglo-Catholic and evangelical wings of the Church which had wanted a “two-tier” system.

Some are now likely to consider Pope Benedict’s offer last October to make it easier for Anglicans to convert to Roman Catholicism.

The Pope is to visit Scotland and England in September on a trip already mired in controversy.

The liberal wing of the Church of England, which has campaigned for women bishops ever since the first woman priest was ordained 16 years ago, welcomed the draft legislation.

“It is now right for the Church of England as a whole to accept women and men as equal before God in all parts of its ministry,” Women and the Church, a group which champions women bishops, said in a statement.

The Church’s revision committee proposed safeguards for traditionalist parishes, including the right to request that a male bishop perform blessings and ordinations. But it did not accommodate calls for new dioceses or a special class of bishops.

The draft proposals will now go forward for debate at the Church’s General Synod, or parliament, in York, northern England, in July, and will still have to pass a number of stages before England could see its first woman bishop, possibly in 2014.

If passed, it would bring the Church of England in line with Anglicans in the United States, Canada and New Zealand.

The ordination of women, along with homosexual bishops and same-sex marriages, is among the most divisive issues facing the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members worldwide.

Conservatives say as Jesus Christ’s apostles were all men, there is nothing in the Bible or church history to support women bishops. Liberals say it is insulting not to admit women to positions of power.

The Church of England has struggled to accommodate both groups, and has seen dozens of traditionalists convert to Roman Catholicism in recent years.

That number could increase after the Pope last year issued a document, the “Apostolic Constitution,” which catered for groups of Anglo-Catholics to convert while keeping some of their Anglican traditions, including married clergy.

The offer caused tension between the Vatican and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Anglican church.

The Pope’s visit has already stirred controversy after he criticised the government’s equality legislation.

The Foreign Office, which is coordinating the trip, was forced to apologise last month after the leak of a flippant memo from a civil servant suggesting the Pope should open a hospital abortion ward, bless a gay marriage and launch papal-branded condoms.

Editing by Mark Trevelyan