LONDON -- The specter of a schism darkens the Church of England as 574 Anglicans, arrayed in the three houses of the General Synod, decide tomorrow whether or not to permit the ordination of women as priests.
No matter what the outcome of the ballot in Westminster, Britain's established church faces a divisive period.
"It is an enormous issue," said John Wilkins, editor of the religious magazine, The Tablet. "In this century it is one of the most important decisions the Church of England has had to take."
Though it is thought most members of the synod favor women as priests, a two-thirds majority in each house is required for the measure to pass.
At the moment, according to a spokesman for the Church of England, "It is too close to call."
Mr. Wilkins and other observers expect the resolution to be approved by the House of Clergy and probably the House of Bishops, but it might not win the necessary two-thirds in the House of Laity.
"This is the danger area," he said.
Arthur Leggatt, head of the Church Union, an organization of Anglican Catholics (who accept Catholic ritual but not papal authority), says he opposes the resolution because, "We do not believe the Church of England has the authority to alter the nature of the ordained ministry as it has been received, detected in Scripture."
Division and unhappiness
If women are ordained, he predicted, "the consequence would be one of division and unhappiness. I don't anticipate there would be a split as there was in the [Anglican] church in the United States of America. I don't think that will happen in England, but certainly divisions will occur."
Most major government and church figures endorse the ordination of women, including the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey. According to Mr. Wilkins, Canterbury has "tremendous symbolic importance" for Anglicans all over the world, although he does not have authority over the church, as the pope does over Roman Catholics.
Worldwide there are 29 provinces, each independent. Of them 12, including the United States, allow the ordination of women.
While there is still an undercurrent of opposition to the ordination of women among traditionalist members of the Episcopal Church -- the U.S. branch of Anglicanism -- the battle over the issue ended for most Episcopalians when their General Convention approved such ordinations in 1976.
Since then, about 1,500 women have been ordained as Episcopal priests or deacons.
In Washington on Nov. 19, the Rev. Jane Holmes Dixon will be consecrated the second female bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The first, Bishop Barbara Harris of Massachusetts, who was elected in 1988, and Bishop Penelope Jamieson of New Zealand, the only other female bishop in the worldwide Anglican communion, will take part.
In England, the Rev. Francis Gardiner speaks for an organization of about 3,500 Anglican priests called Cost of Conscience. They oppose women's ordination. But their most impassioned arguments are on doctrine, not on the basis of the church's authority to make such deep changes.
The Lord's intentions
"There are those who take the view that it is not our Lord's intention that women be in the priesthood," he said. "If you want indications of that, I can only say he chose as his first college of apostles twelve men. That might have been social conditioning, but he was not a chap who went with what people thought right and proper. In fact, that is why they put him on the cross."
Father Gardiner suspects the pro-ordination people are animated too much by "very, very contemporary ideas about personal fulfillment."
"They talk about the priesthood almost like a rank in the army, a major or something. They talk about it as rising up in the ranks. But the priesthood isn't about that; it is about sacrifice."
The drive for women's ordination in the Church of England is of fairly recent origin.
The first synod vote on the matter was taken in 1975. The decision was that the time was not right for such a change.
Since then, the pressure in England on behalf of women in the Anglican priesthood has grown. In 1985 the synod voted to permit the ordination of women as deacons. Today sentiment around the issue is hotter than ever. Thus the expectations that no matter how the vote goes tomorrow, the church will surely be rived, possibly split permanently.
It should be noted that although the issue before the Church of England is important enough that tomorrow's debate will be televised live from Westminster, it does not touch the lives of most English people. Less than 3 million are practicing Anglicans.
In anticipation of even more desertions should the motion carry, another resolution is on the agenda to provide compensation for those clergy unable to accept life in a church with women priests.
Dr. Ernest Lucas, the associate director of Christian Impact, which organizes classes on Christian practice and who supports women priests, believes a schism "would be a possibility."
Return to Rome?