Anglican bishops gathered at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England, turned back a move to place a moratorium on ordinations of women to the priesthood yesterday and adopted instead a resolution acknowledging the right of each of the 25 member churches of Anglicanism to make its own decision on women priests.
The question of ordaining women has simmered just below the surface throughout the once-every-10-years assembly, which is in its third and final week. More than 400 bishops from around the world are participating.
Yesterday's action was viewed as a compromise, after long and anguished debate on both sides of the issue.
The resolution, approved by 316 votes in favor, 37 against, and 17 abstentions, reaffirmed traditional Anglican commitment to the preservation of unity despite diversity. The resolution noted that since the last Lambeth Conference in 1968, four churches in - Hong Kong, Canada, New Zealand and the United States - have ordained women.
The mother church of Anglicanism in England is expected to vote on or - in England is expected to vote on ordaining women at its synod later this year.
American bishops, who remain divided on women's ordination, spoke on both sides of the issue.
Bishop William Sheridan of northern Indiana urged fellow bishops to learn from the "painful experience" of the American church - the largest in Anglicanism outside Britain. He maintained that the continuing controversy in American has ruptured relations between bishops and priests, led to an "unprecedented number" of York and John T. Walker of Washington a "great number of lay people" to leave the church and "all but ruined" relations with other christian churches.
But Bishops Paul Moore Jr. of New York and John T. Walker of Washington both argued that the American church would have been far more divided and chaotic if its General Convention two years ago had failed to approve ordination of women.
Bishop John Coburn of Massachusetts disputed the claim that vast numbers were leaving the Episcopal Church over the ordination issue. "Among our 3 million - member church, 25 congregations or splinters of congregations have left us, meaning some 5,000 member and about 50 clergy," he said.
The Anglican Church in North American, the group which has split from the Episcopal Church over women priests and liturgical reforms, has repeatedly declined to give membership figures, maintaining that it is growing so fast that accurate figures are not obtainable.
The Venerable Martha Blacklock, who, as archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark is perhaps the highest ranking woman priest in the United States, commented that yesterday's action "means that we could see a woman bishop within 10 years, perhaps first in Washington or in New York."
However, another resolution adopted by the conference said that any decision to consecrate a woman bishop "should have overwhelming support in that member church . . . lest the bishop's office should become a cause of disunity instead of a focus of unity."
he bishops' permissive action on ordaining women was bitterly attacked by Greek Orthodox Archbishop Athenagoras, an observer at the conference. "With this unilateral, airy resolution you create new difficulties in the cause of church unity' he told the bishops, adding that "the situation needs the prayers of exorcism."
Both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, which hold that Christian tradition and scripture forbid ordination of women warned that church unity talks with Anglicans will be hampered by women priests in Anglican bodies.
The Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop John Allin said he was pleased that the Lambeth conference had adopted the aims he said he has tried to achieve during the debate on women priests - to hold diversity together and maintain unity.