Church of England prepares to vote on women bishops

London (AFP) - The Church of England gathered Friday for its most important meeting in more than 20 years to decide whether women should become bishops, after decades of division on the issue.

Bishops, vicars and ordinary members of the church are meeting at the start of a General Synod focused on Monday's vote over an issue which has split the church for at least half a century.

A proposal to allow women bishops was rejected as recently as 2012, prompting a public outcry.

But since then the church has gained a new leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. The former oil executive strongly supports the move and has urged "massive cultural change".

It has also engaged figures who worked on peace efforts in Northern Ireland to help resolve the dispute, despite opposition from conservatives.

Senior clergy and officials are now hopeful of a yes vote on Monday at the meeting in the northern English city of York.

"Not since 11 November, 1992 (when the church approved women priests) has the future of the Church of England turned so sharply on a single vote," William Fittall, secretary general of the General Synod, last month.

There would be "shock and bemusement" if the measure was rejected this time, he added.

- 'Very healing' -

The Church of England is the "mother church" of the global Anglican Communion, which is followed by some 80 million people in over 165 countries.

There are already Anglican women bishops in countries such as the United States and Australia.

While a yes vote would not compel Anglican churches in other countries to allow women bishops, senior clergy say it would send a powerful message which would likely lead to others following suit.

The proposal is opposed by conservatives who believe that only men should be priests and bishops, for reasons including that they are the representatives on Earth of Jesus Christ.

However, some of those opposed to the measure have been involved in drafting the proposals which will go before the Synod on Monday.

These include principles welcomed by conservatives, including a statement that the Church of England is committed to helping those opposed to women priests and bishops "to flourish within its life and structures".

"This is really a start, it's not the end of the process," said Lindsay Newcombe, vice-chair of Forward in Faith, a leading Anglo-Catholic group which opposes women's ordinations.

"It's the beginning of a working out. It's not really about women bishops, it's about how we relate to other people."

If the vote passes, it will then be debated by parliament, approved by the Queen and then come back to the General Synod in November as a formality.

Parliament would be likely to pass the measure if the General Synod had previously approved it and the first women bishops could get the green light by the end of the year.

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, vice-chair of WATCH (Women and the Church), a group campaigning for gender equality in the church, said accepting women bishops would be "very healing" of damage caused by the previous rejection in 2012.

"Just having women and men there as bishops will be a really powerful signal, almost like an icon, that women and men are both equally made in the image of God," added Threlfall-Holmes, also a vicar in northeast England.

Asked what would happen if the church rejected the measure again, she said: "It really doesn't bear thinking about."

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