Church of England's women bishops vote 'obstacle' to Christian unity

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Justin Welby, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. Credit: Lambeth Palace/Picture Partnership.

The Church of England’s decision Monday to ordain women as bishops is “a further obstacle” on the path to Christian unity, several Catholic leaders have said.

Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, chair of the dialogue and unity department of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said the Church’s goal of ecumenical dialogue is “full visible ecclesial communion.”

“Such full ecclesial communion embraces full communion in the episcopal office,” Archbishop Longley said. “The decision of the Church of England to admit women to the episcopate therefore sadly places a further obstacle on the path to this unity between us.”

The Church of England’s General Synod voted July 14 to allow women to be ordained as bishops. The synod’s House of Bishops voted in favor 37-2, with one abstention; the House of Clergy voted 172-25, with four abstentions; and the House of Laity voted 152-45, with five abstentions.

A 2012 vote on the same topic had majority support among clergy and bishops, but was blocked in the House of Laity.

Justin Welby, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, and John Sentamu of York supported the change, as did prime minister David Cameron. Because the Church of England is the established church in England and Wales, the vote must also be approved by Parliament.

The Church of England said its first female bishop could be appointed by the end of the year. There are already women bishops in Anglican branches in the U.S., Canada, and Australia.

However, the decision could increase tensions with some members of the Anglican Communion, as well as hinder relations with the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.

Archbishop Longley voiced appreciation for the Church of England’s pastoral provision for Anglicans who “continue to hold to the historic understanding of the episcopate”; the provision allows congregations with objections to seek a male alternative bishop if a woman bishop is appointed.

He added the Church is still dedicated to ecumenical dialogue with the Church of England.

“At this difficult moment we affirm again the significant ecumenical progress which has been made in the decades since the Second Vatican Council and the development of firm and lasting friendships between our communities.”

Monsignor Keith Newton, head of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, said the Church of England action is the “next logical step” following the Church of England’s 1992 vote to allow the ordination of women priests.

“What is undeniable is that both developments make harder the position of those within the Church of England who still long for corporate unity with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches,” Msgr. Newton said.

The personal ordinariate which Msgr. Newton leads is a structure established under the impetus of Benedict XVI which allowed for communities of Anglicans to join the Church while also retaining some of the patrimony of their Anglican heritage.

Msgr. Newton said Benedict’s establishment of the ordinariates for Anglicans responded to “repeated requests from Anglicans who longed for unity with the Catholic Church.”

“It was a prophetic and generous ecumenical gesture because it demonstrated the possibility of unity of faith with diversity of expression.”

The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham’s groups across England and Wales will hold an exploration day on Sept. 6 to make the ordinariate more widely known, especially to those who are not members but are interested in its vision. The ordinariate says its “Called to Be One” event is “a major evangelization initiative.”

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