Six years ago, the Church of England made the decision to permit women priests; now the General Synod, currently meeting in York, is considering expanding that decision to include bishops.
According to the Times of London, the synod voted overwhelmingly to begin "further theological study" on the episcopate over the next two years. The purpose of this study is to prepare the way for a debate over women bishops.
The decision, backed by 36 of the 37 bishops who were present at the synod, means that women bishops could be consecrated in England within seven to ten years.
An Anglican nun from the Community of St Andrew told the synod, "We cannot be fully human and the Church cannot be fully united in its ministry unless there are some women as well as men bishops."
Three provinces of the Anglican Communion - New Zealand, America and Canada - already have women bishops, and the Episcopal Church in Scotland is expected to consecrate women before England.
The Church of England voted to ordain women priests in 1992 and the first women were ordained at Bristol Cathedral in 1994. More than 470 male clergy left the Anglican ministry as a result, of whom 58 subsequently returned as Catholic priests. Nearly 400 of the clergy who left received conscience payments, costing the Church Commissioners £15.6 million.
Opposition in the Church to women bishops is weaker now than it was earlier to women priests, because most of the traditional factions who remained in the Church find it illogical to have one without the other.
The Anglican Archbishop of York, David Hope, one of the leading opponents of women priests, was among those who backed the motion. He said it was absurd to allow women to be ordained to the priesthood while explicitly barring them from becoming bishops: "The threefold nature of Holy Orders as it has been traditionally understood in the Church of England is that in theory at least a deacon may become a priest and a priest become a bishop. Certainly, that is how it has been both understood and practised thus far for male persons, so why not for female persons?"
The Bishop of Rochester, the Right Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, supports women bishops but admitted their consecration might create difficulties. He said a bishop should be a focus of unity in a church or diocese, but those unable to recognise a woman bishop would feel excluded.
Such a move would be a further set-back to ecumenical relations with the Catholic Church, already hampered by the earlier decision to permit female clergy.
Zenit News Service