Church of England OKs female priests Action reverses policy of centuries

November 12, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The Church of England departed from 450 years of tradition and agreed yesterday that women should become priests.

The combined vote of 384 to 169 among the delegates in the three houses of the church's General Synod achieved the necessary two-thirds majority in each house.

Until the last minute, through nearly five hours of what one priest called "a charitable debate which no one can win," the outcome of the ballot was never certain.

As expected, the vote came closest in the House of Laity, where at 169 to 82, it passed by only two votes. In the House of Clergy it was approved 176 to 74, and in the House of Bishops 39 to 13.

Shrieks and shouts of happiness erupted outside Church House by Westminster Abbey as word of the outcome was relayed to the thousands of people who had waited through the long cold day for the vote.

"I'm so proud," Helen Culiffe, a deacon in the church told the British Broadcasting Corp. "We can all now take our place as priests in the Church of England."

Elizabeth Mills, who led a movement called Women Against the Ordination of Women, said the vote had "marginalized a large body of the church." She predicted it would break down into sects.

Some simply lamented, like Anthony Kilmister, head of the traditionalist Prayer Book Society, who said, "Today is a very, very sad day for all who recognize that the church is being turned upside down."

Others predicted worse outcomes: The Rev. Peter Geldard, a leading opponent, said the decision to admit female priests would pit "diocese against diocese, parish against parish, even parishioners against parishioners."

About 1,000 priests are expected to leave England's established church in reaction to yesterday's decision; many are expected to either set up schismatic sects or go over to the Roman Catholic Church.

At the same time, the church's 1,350 female deacons are waiting to be elevated to the priesthood, to take their places should the men leave.

These women, said the Bishop of Norwich, the Rev. Peter Nott, "have felt that they were called, not just to be deacons but to be priests, and this new step will now allow their vocation to be tested for the first time."

The first ordination is expected in about 18 months.

The Vatican reacted quickly to the vote. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a church spokesman, said in a statement that the decision "constitutes a new and grave obstacle to the entire process of reconciliation with the Catholic Church."

The two churches have sought closer ties since 1966. The Anglicans split from the Catholic Church in the 16th Century over the marriages of King Henry VIII.

Dr. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the symbolic if not actual head of the global Anglican Communion, warmly endorsed the ordination resolution.

Now, as the man all Anglicans look to for guidance, he is left with the task of healing the many wounds caused not so much by the vote but by the 17-year campaign to bring women into the Anglican priesthood.

Those who resisted the measure based their opposition on two principal points -- that only the worldwide Anglican Communion could make such a drastic change in the church, and on scriptural grounds: Christ, they argued, chose men to be priests; he did not chose women.

One opponent even argued that the measure should be rejected because it would cost the Church of England too much money to provide compensation for priests who leave.

The scriptural argument -- the argument of conscience -- was the most passionately pressed. But in the end, the overwhelming majority of the delegates to the synod decided that Christ did not necessarily reject women as priests because he did not chose any as his apostles.

The Church of England becomes the 13th of the 29 self-governing provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion to admit women.

In America, the 2.5 million-member Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, approved such ordinations in 1976. Since then about 1,500 women have been ordained as priests or deacons. One of two female bishops worldwide is American.

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