The Church of England legislative body will vote Tuesday on whether to allow women bishops, a decision that comes after nearly two decades of debate and threatens to drive away traditionalists in the church.
The Associated Press reported that a majority of the church's governing General Synod, comprised of three houses of bishops, clergy and laity, is expected to vote in favor of the change. But the British press is characterizing the vote among the lay members as being on a "knife edge" and the body that will likely determine if the measure passes by the required two-thirds majority or the debate rages for another decade.
"The waverers are being targeted ... with online campaigns by both sides," reported the Telegraph.
If approved, the legislation will go to parliament before being signed off by Queen Elizabeth II, who is also the Church of England's supreme governor, paving the way for the first women bishops in 2014, according to AFP.
The Church of England, which separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, is the mother church of the 80-million-member Anglican Communion. The church has been split over the issue of women and the priesthood since the General Synod gave the nod 36 years ago to ordaining women as priests, the first of whom were ordained 18 years ago. The communion's first woman bishop was appointed in the United States in 1989 and there are women bishops in Australia, Canada, Cuba, New Zealand and South Africa.
The outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has presided over the debate for much of the past decade, coming down on the side of allowing women bishops. The incoming Archbishop, the Rt Rev Justin Welby, also supports the legislation that has received the backing of 42 out of the 44 Church of England diocese.
The General Synod will be voting on a compromise law that commits the church to "respect" the position of parishes that oppose women bishops. But the details of how that respect will be given won't be worked out until after the measure is approved.
Proponents say it's a matter of equality for women — who outnumber men being trained for the priesthood — and it's time to settle the matter and move on.
"Another 10 years going over and over the same arguments would cripple the church’s credibility and mission. It would also deprive the church of the skills and wisdom of women bishops. To waste our time and talents in this way would be quite wrong," the Rev. Rachel Weir, chairman of the campaigning group Watch (Women and the Church), told the Daily Mail.
But traditionalists argue the change goes against biblical teachings and would deepen existing fractures within the church's clergy and laity.
"Resentment of women priests is among the issues which has driven dozen of priests and more than a thousand parishioners to join the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walshingham," the AP reported. "It was created last year by Pope Benedict XVI as a sort of halfway house where Anglicans convert to Catholicism, safe from female priests, but may keep traditions including the Book of Common Prayer."