The heads of the worldwide Anglican communion said yesterday that the U.S. Episcopal Church has "the constitutional right" to ordain women as bishops, but counseled a go-slow attitude because of the implications such a move could have in other branches of the 70-million-member church and in relations with other churches.

Meeting near Toronto, leaders of the 28 autonomous national churches that make up Anglicanism asked the archbishop of Canterbury to name a "working party" to continue to study the question of women bishops.

Discussion of the highly sensitive issue was precipitated by the vote of bishops of the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, last September, affirming their willingness to consecrate a woman bishop if one were elected by her diocese.

Individual national churches in Anglicanism are not subject to an international hierarchy but seek through a variety of consultative processes to maintain unity.

Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning of the Episcopal Church, in a telephone interview, called the careful and diplomatically worded statement of the primates "very affirming . . . . In no sense were the primates trying to judge the American church."

Only a handful of Anglican churches, notably in Canada and New Zealand in addition to the United States, have ordained women to the priesthood.

The statement notes that the question of ordaining a woman bishop is "a more serious step" than ordination to the priesthood, "because a bishop is consecrated for the whole worldwide church."

The primates raised the possibility that opposition to ordaining women in some quarters could cause schism.

In Britain, where ordaining women to the deaconate, the first step toward the priesthood, is under consideration, some prominent church leaders have threatened schism if women are ordained.

A move by the Roman Catholic Church last week raising new hopes of Vatican recognition of the validity of Anglican ordinations prompted speculation that the prelates might soft-pedal talk of ordaining women, in deference to Vatican opposition to women priests.

But the final statement undercuts fears that the primates would hold women hostage to unity.

"Ecumenical perspective may be short or longer term," says the document, which does not mention unity talks with any specific Christian communion. "Could the ordination of women bishops be seen as a long-term contribution to ecumenical progress rather than as a short-term obstacle?"