Church of England gets first female bishop despite split

London (AFP) - Libby Lane becomes the Church of England's first female bishop on Monday despite entrenched opposition from traditionalists, who say that the clergy's top rung is no place for a woman.

Lane, 48, will go from being a regular parish priest to taking on one of the trickiest jobs in the Church of England since King Henry VIII founded it in 1534.

A Manchester United fan and saxophone player, who has been praised for her humour and common sense, Lane was named as the next Bishop of Stockport in northwest England in December.

Her appointment came five months after the Church of England's General Synod voted to admit women bishops following a reconciliation process led by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby after decades of disagreement.

Lane, who will be consecrated in a ceremony at York Minster in northern England, has said she is "excited though not a little daunted" by the prospect.

Church of England moderates are overjoyed at the chance of moving on from an often obscure theological debate over gender, which left many ordinary Britons baffled.

"It's going to be very healing, actually," Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, a vicar and vice-chair of WATCH, which campaigns for gender equality in the church, told AFP.

"Fundamentally, it's about whether the church believes that men and women are equally made in God's image and it's going to be a really powerful symbol."

While countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia have already appointed Anglican women bishops, Lane's appointment in the home of Anglicanism will also send a strong message to those which have not, such as Nigeria.

- Hopes for more women bishops -

Nevertheless, divisions continue to fester.

In recognition of this, the Church of England will allow parishes that do not want to be led by a female bishop because of their theological convictions to be tended to by a man instead.

Lane may be more likely to encounter problems from the clergy itself than from her parishes, though.

Threlfall-Holmes said that ordinations conducted by Lane would probably not be recognised by conservatives who would see them as tainted by her gender.

"People are literally keeping pedigrees from now on," she said, highlighting how clergymen associated with female bishops in religious ceremonies could face discrimination from traditionalists throughout their church careers.

The Christian Today website reported that the bishops who perform the traditional laying of hands on Lane at her consecration will not do the same for a traditionalist priest becoming a bishop days later after being asked to show "gracious restraint".

"We understand that there are only about three bishops who will actually be able to lay hands on Philip North because everyone else will have laid hands on Libby Lane the week before," it quoted a source as saying.

Lane's allies are hopeful she will be able to handle the extraordinary pressure on her and moderates are hopeful that more women will be named to the six vacant posts currently available.

"She will face the difficulties that the church is facing as a whole and will cope with them with majesty," said John Pritchard, a former Bishop of Oxford who was warden of Cranmer Hall in Durham when Lane trained for the ministry there in the early 1990s.