Elevating a woman to the office of bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion would write a new page in Christian history - and it also could set off a religious storm.
Both possibilities were in mind as Anglican bishops, including those of the U.S. Episcopal Church, gathered for the opening Saturday of their once-a-decade Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England.It is the global consultative forum for Anglican leaders, and while it has no direct legislative powers, it has been strongly influential for that international body of 70 million Christians.
Among its 430 bishops from 28 regional and national branches, including the United States, there are no women, and none has ever been brought into that male line traced back 2,000 years to the time of the apostles.
That historic succession also is maintained by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, which also reserve their priesthood to males. Protestant churches with bishops do not claim that ancient lineage.
Several branches of the Anglican Communion now admit women to the priesthood, and the prospect has arisen that they may soon, somewhere, gain election as bishop.
That has exacerbated an already tense issue.
The Most Rev. Robert Runcie, archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the worldwide communion who will preside at the three-week conference lasting to Aug. 7, has said:
"Until there is a decisive, ecumenical Christian answer to this question, there will inevitably be the risk of broken, or at least impaired, communion between provinces of the (Anglican) communion."
Women have been admitted to the Anglican priesthood in nine branches, including the United States, where there now are more than 900 women Episcopal priests.
Other branches ordaining women are Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Brazil, Kenya, Cuba, Uganda and Northern India. But they're still barred from the priesthood in the other 19 branches, including the "mother" Church of England.
Consequently, women's ordination itself remains a divisive issue, rejected in much of the communion, accepted elsewhere, but the developing possibility of women bishops accentuated the conflict.
In several U.S. dioceses recently choosing new bishops, women have been among the nominees but haven't won election. If and when it happens, U.S. bishops have said they would uphold it.
But another, ominous sort of note has come from some other bishops.
In an "Ash Wednesday" manifesto last February, 54 Anglican bishops, including four active bishops in the United States, declared that ordaining women as bishops could wreck the Anglican communion.
A "grave situation has already been created" by ordination of women in some parts of the church, preventing full mutual recognition and causing some schisms, the statement said, adding:
"If women are ordained to the episcopate (as bishops) we do not see how that can do other than call in question the continuance of the Anglican Communion."
The manifesto, published in newspaper ads around the country over the last six months, emphasized the historic tradition of a male priesthood, and with the upcoming Lambeth Conference in mind, said:
"Both for the preservation of a commonly accepted ministry in the Anglican Communion, and for the wider unity of the church, it is essential that the introduction of any major innovation be in accordance with the judgment of Scripture and have a clear ecumenical consensus."
On the other side of the issue, 141 Anglican bishops issued a "Pentecost Message" last May, declaring:
"We believe that the ordination of women to all three orders of bishop, priest and deacon is right.
"Men and women are created in the image of God and are baptized into equal and full membership of the body of Christ. The ordained ministry should be a sign of this fundamental truth."
The statement says women's ordination is "vital to the mission of the church" and "a natural development for the church's ministry."
While the Lambeth Conference lacks legislative power to lay down the law on the matter, the status of women in the ministry was expected to get major attention, with an attempt at some joint policy about it.