The General Synod, the governing body of the worldwide Anglican Communion’s mother church, voted yesterday to stage a further discussion and a vote on Monday.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the communion’s spiritual leader, warned the Church it was “looking into the abyss” over the issue, saying a vote against the move would put it off the agenda until 2015.
“Like the majority of members of the synod, and the majority of the members of the Church of England, I am very firmly of the view that we need to proceed as speedily as we can to resolve this question because I, like most of you, long to see women bishops in the Church of England,” he said.
“I also long for there to be the kind of provision for those who continue to have theological reservations on this subject, for their position to be secured in such a way that they can feel grateful for the outcome as others do.”
However, a last-ditch amendment would give traditionalist parishes the right of access to an alternative male bishop who shares their views about women clergy.
Pro-women campaigners have claimed this would enshrine discrimination against women in law, and are therefore threatening to vote alongside traditionalists.
The Guardian newspaper said today that a carefully-stitched compromise risks failing.
“Messy compromises are so integral to the contemporary Church of England that one can imagine the communion wafer being replaced with a lump of fudge,” the liberal daily said in its editorial.
It said the outgoing Williams had a progressive heart but has shown himself to be “a pluralist first and a liberal only second. His desire to respect every religious opinion is such that he leaves office without settling any arguments.
“He talked tough about the process yesterday, but in the substantive ballot on Monday the ludicrous prospect is of campaigners for women bishops voting against.”
The legislation will need a two-thirds majority in all three Houses of the General Synod, of clergy, laity and bishops, if it is to get final approval.
If it clears the final hurdle it will then go for approval in the Houses of Parliament before receiving royal assent, paving the way for the first women bishops in 2014.
The Church of England – the officially-established state church in England – voted to create women priests in 1992 and they now constitute around a third of all its priests.
The General Synod is being held at the University of York in northern England.
The 61-year-old Williams will step down as church leader in December after a decade in the post.