LONDON — After years of deadlock and division, the Church of England voted Monday to allow women to become bishops, overturning centuries of tradition and overcoming a dispute that had undermined the unity of Anglicans.
The vote taken in the General Synod, the decision-making body of the Church of England, followed a long battle over an issue that has sometimes threatened to split the church.
The move to allow women as bishops was supported by the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of the church and the global Anglican Communion, who told the BBC before the vote that the public would find the exclusion of women “almost incomprehensible.”
After the result, he said in a statement that he was delighted and described the move as “the completion of what was begun over 20 years ago with the ordination of women as priests.”
The changes will now be considered by Parliament and, provided they are approved there, a formal announcement will be made at the next meeting of the General Synod in November.
The General Synod voted to ordain women to the priesthood in 1992, and ordinations began two years later. Now, around one-third of clerics are women, and women can hold senior positions such as canon or archdeacon.
Moves to dismantle the legal obstacles to women as bishops began in earnest in 2005. But in 2012, the change was blocked by a small margin by lay representatives in the General Synod, provoking a crisis and prompting the archbishop of Canterbury at the time, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, to say that the church had “undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility.”
Women serve as bishops in Anglican Communion churches in several countries, including the United States, Australia, and Canada, but some Anglican churches in developing countries do not ordain female priests.
The global Anglican Communion has 77 million members in more than 160 countries. The Episcopal Church in the United States was the first member to have a woman bishop and is now led by a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Divisions surfaced during the debate in England, with some opponents objecting on theological grounds to women as bishops. At times, the issue became so divisive that there were fears that groups might break away if they lost the argument, either to align with the Roman Catholic Church or with evangelical African churches.
Those who voiced opposition during a debate Monday included Bishop John Goddard of Burnley, who said he could not vote in favor of the legislation “out of obedience to God.”
“Out of theological conviction, I must vote no,” he said, according to The Press Association.
The Church of England’s decision in 2012 to continue barring women as bishops threatened relations between the church and the government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron.