The Church of England is publishing draft legislation that could allow the ordination of women bishops in around five years time, opening up episcopal ministry to all for the first time.
The proposed measures published on Monday 5 January 2009 will be up for debate by the church's General Synod, its governing body, at a meeting due to be held in February next year.
In July 2008, all three houses of the Synod (bishops, clergy and laity) voted to press ahead with legislation to introduce women bishops. The issue has been explored and debated for a number of years.
The majority were not deterred by threats that some male clergy might quit over the issue unless a raft of demands for "satisfactory safeguards" were forthcoming, but agreed to what have been termed "appropriate pastoral measures".
Under the draft legislation, male "complementary bishops" would be nominated to minister to those parishes unwilling to accept the oversight of women bishops.
Supporters of women bishops - the great majority - say it is very important that no actions are taken that allow them to be viewed as in any way second class.
They point to the divisiveness resulting from the Act of Synod following the ordination of women as priests 14 years ago.
The Church of England has said that the legislation process would mean that there is unlikely to be a female bishop installed before 2014.
Christina Rees, of Women And The Church (WATCH), said: "At last we have draft legislation and that is very good news."
In a press statement, WATCH added: "[we are] pleased that provision in the draft legislation endorses the authority of diocesan bishops, and that they retain the authority to delegate certain functions to another bishop if requested to do so. This means that episcopal authority resides in and is retained by the diocesan bishop and is not transferred automatically to another bishop. WATCH is opposed, however, to the provision of male-only suffragan sees from which ‘complementary’ bishops may be appointed.
"The report acknowledges that some of its arrangements would restrict the rights of bishops who are women, and cites the Church of England’s continuing exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the principle in English law that where there are conflicting rights, the “exercise of one right may sometimes need to be restricted in order to protect the exercise of another right”. (GS1707 page 3, paragraph 16)
"WATCH is dismayed that the rights of bishops who are women should be proscribed and that there is not equality of opportunity for women at this level in the Church. WATCH believes that the 20 years’ experience of women as bishops elsewhere in the Anglican Communion shows that mutually acceptable arrangements work well on an informal basis."
Christina Rees said: “This report needs to be seen in the context of a General Synod which has for the past few years stated its desire to open the episcopate to women, and in the wider context of a Church which wonders why this is taking so long. WATCH will be making submissions to the Revision Committee about the contents of the Code of Practice, some of which we find unacceptable, but for now, we take heart that at last we have the draft measure which makes it possible for women to be bishops.”
The Church of England, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, is the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has around 77 million members.
It first ordained women priests in 1994. The measure for women bishops is seen as completing this process.