The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States tonight offered to resign his office as top official of the 29-million-member church because he is "unable to accept" women priests, which the church's General Convention approved more than a year ago.
The resignation offer of Bishop John Maury Allin was buried in a state-of-the-church address prepared for delivery to his brother bishops at the opening of the annual House of Bishops meeting here.
"Can you accept the service of a presiding bishop who to date is unable to accept women in the role of priests?" he asked.
Saying that, "To date I remain unconvinced that women can be priests," he pledged: "If it is determined by prayerful authority that this limitation prevents one from serving as the presiding bishop of this church. I am willing to resign the office."
The Episcopal Church's decisive vote a year ago at its Triennial Convention to open the priesthood to women has continued to stir controversy.
Two workers ago, some 1,800 dissidents met in St. Louis to lay plans to split from the Episcopal Church over the issue of women priests.
Bishop Allin was present as an observer for part of the St. Louis meeting, although he was denied permission to address the gathering.
Bishop Allin, 56, was elected presiding bishop by his fellow bishops four years ago. Unless he resigns, he has eight more years to serve of his 12-year term.
In his address here, the church leader said, "I have prayed to be open to any new understanding of either priesthood or human sexuality which may be given to me." But thus far, he said, his convictions "prevent my believing that women can be priests any more than they can become fathers or husbands."
In the years of intense and emotional debate leading up to last year's decision by the Episcopal Church to ordain women. Bishop Allin tried not to take sides, but his opposition to women priests was known throughtout the church.
In August, during a visit with Russian Orthodox churchmen in Moscow, he referred to the decision of the Episcopal Church to ordain women as "an experiment," a choice of words which got him into hot water with both pro- and anti-women-priest forces at home.
In his address tonight, Bishop Allin made several appeals to extend an olive branch to the dissidents who are threatening to pull out of the church. He asked authorization for a special task force "to coordinate the efforts of this church in seeking and offering means of healing, restoring or creating a new relationship with the distressed and separated members of this church."
His conciliatory attitude toward the current rebels is in sharp contrast to the tougher stand he took three years ago, when three pro-ordination bishops irregularly ordained 11 women to the priesthood.
At that time, the angry presiding bishop summoned a special emergency session of the House of Bishops. The body ultimately censured the three of their brethren who had ordained the women.
In another portion of his address tonight Bishop Allin sought to head off proposed censure action here against a retired bishop, the Albert Chambers, now of Dennis, Mass. Bishop Chambers, acting for the dissidents, has confirmed persons in some of the breakaway churches against the orders of the recognized bishop of that area.
Bishop Allin also urged the House of Bishops to be "doubly cautious" in another matter before it: the threatened disciplining of Bishop Paul Moore Jr. of New York for ordaining an avowed lesbian to the priesthood last winter.