The Church of England Tuesday acknowledged that it could ordain the first women bishops by the end of the decade if proposals contained in a new report are taken forward by its general synod.
The report -- fruit of a three-year-long working party headed by the Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, south east of London -- set out a series of options for the church to consider if it is to proceed from ordaining women priests, which it has done for the last 10 years, to promoting them to the episcopate.
Its findings were immediately denounced as contrary to Holy Scripture by the conservative evangelical fringe group the Church Society, but were welcomed by women in the church who have been pressing for the change.
Nazir-Ali told a press conference: "We have tried to show in the report that it is a soluble problem if the church wants to make a decision that is not maintaining the status quo. If the church decides after due consideration to ordain women to the episcopate we think it will be possible, given goodwill on every side, to maintain the unity of the church."
Although the 289-page report did not make recommendations, it sets out a series of options ranging from maintaining existing practice, to ordaining women to all orders of bishoprics, allowing dissenting parishes oversight from male bishops, and the setting up of a separate province with its own episcopal structure, parallel to those of York and Canterbury, catering only for those churches which could not recognize women's ministry or accept the authority of men ordained by them.
The report was drawn up by a working party containing a wide cross-section of views, with five women among its 11 members. Nazir-Ali, an evangelical, is one of 39 out of 44 diocesan bishops to ordain women and was the first to promote a woman minister to an archdeaconry.
The report lists the advantages and disadvantages of each option, though it makes clear that the current situation is not really sustainable because pressure will continue.
It adds: "It seems certain that, for the foreseeable future at least, acceptance of gender-blind equality of opportunity will remain a central feature of western society. This means that the church's position will appear increasingly isolated and anachronistic and there will be continuous pressure on the church to reconsider its decision ... the Church of England will not be able to commend the gospel effectively if its structures embody sexism in a way that contemporary society no longer finds acceptable."