LONDON — The leader of the Church of England appealed for harmony among the faithful as it went into a vote Tuesday on whether to allow women to serve as bishops, a historic decision that comes after decades of debate.
The push to muster a two-thirds majority among lay members of the General Synod is expected to be close, with many on both sides unsatisfied with a compromise proposal to accommodate individual parishes which spurn female bishops.
In a sermon at a communion service before the debate, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, quoted Cardinal John Henry Newman's motto, "heart speaks to heart."
"That is what we are praying and we are saying for our day, not, please God, just an exchange of ideas, not just for a rival taking of positions, but somehow that, from the center of myself and center of yourself, something will emerge that is Christ-like in character," Williams said.
Passage of legislation to allow women to serve as bishops must be approved by two-thirds majorities in the synod's three houses: bishops, priests and laity. Synod members were voting on the latest compromise which calls for church leaders to "respect" the position of parishes that oppose female bishops — without saying exactly what "respect" means.
The nod to conservative forces has drawn some supporters of women bishops into an unlikely alliance with opponents, throwing the result of the vote into doubt.
Supporters of the middle way said that the conscience of opponents needed to be taken into account.
"The trouble is our disagreement is absolute: either a woman can be a bishop, or she cannot," said Rev. Janet Appleby, a parish priest who drafted the compromise. But she added that "respect ... insures that parishes that are unable in conscience to accept women priests and bishops will be able to receive appropriate ministerial and episcopal oversight."
Canon Simon Killwick from Manchester, opposing the compromise, argued that it was "possible to be in favor of women bishops in principle, but to believe that this was the wrong legislation for introducing women bishops."
The first critical vote is on whether to adopt the legislation as English law. A second vote would follow on whether to incorporate the change in church law.
Votes among bishops and clergy in the synod are expected to pass easily, especially since Williams and his successor, Bishop Justin Welby, both strongly support the change. But the measure faces strong opposition among sectors of the laity.
If the measure fails, church officials say it could take five years to go through all the steps leading up to another vote.
It has been 36 years since the General Synod declared it had no fundamental objection to ordaining women as priests, and 18 years since the first women were ordained. But that change never won universal acceptance in the church, with a determined minority rejecting women's ministry as contrary to the Bible.
That group has demanded special arrangements to shield it from supervision by female bishops.
If the change is endorsed by the General Synod, there will be a further wrangle over a code of practice which would spell out what respect means in practical terms.
Sister churches of the Anglican Communion in Australia, New Zealand and the United States already have women serving as bishops.
Southern Africa joined that group on Sunday with the consecration of Ellinah Wamukoya as the Anglican bishop of Swaziland.
"I am going to try to represent the mother attribute of God," Wamukoya said Monday. "A mother is a caring person but at the same time, a mother can be firm in doing whatever she is doing."