London — Debate was intense this week as bishops from the worldwide Anglican Communion voted a compromise on the growing role of women in the church. Meeting in Canterbury, Anglican church leaders agreed to disagree on the theological points involved and opened the way for the first women bishops who are expected to be consecrated this year in the United States and New Zealand.
``There are differences of opinion among us, but that's not news,'' Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie told the gathering of more than 500 bishops. ``What should be news is, I hope, the spirit of unity in Christ which characterized this debate.''
It has been a difficult two weeks for bishops and church members on both sides of the issue. The Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, which meets once in 10 years, approved a resolution saying it could not prevent the self-governing Anglican provinces throughout the world from proceeding as they wished on women's ordination.
The compromise was characteristically Anglican. While it did not ignore differences within the church, it avoided a confrontation and allowed the practice of ordaining women without resolving the debate.
Many activists were disappointed. ``I think the conference missed the challenge it had to give a lead to the secular world in its attitude toward women,'' said Margaret Orr Deas, general secretary of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, a church group which lobbies on the issue. Ms. Deas said the bishops were more inclined to compromises, so they could continue holding their once-a-decade meeting, than in taking a positive stand on women.
With the rapid increase in numbers of women priests and the prospects of at least one woman bishop by the end of this year, Dr. Runcie was asked to appoint a commission to draft rules for relationships among churches.
``I do not wish to underestimate the seriousness of the nonrecognition and noninterchangeability of ministry which might ensue,'' Runcie said. ``But we must now give fresh stress and embodiment to all the other elements of communion and common life.''
Several days before the bishops voted, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher upset traditionalists in the Church of England by supporting women in the clergy. ``I personally think there will be women in the priesthood, and I do not myself find it at odds with Christian doctrine, although I accept that some people do,'' the prime minister said.
Donald Robinson, Archbishop of Sydney, tried to delay the consecration of women bishops with a resolution calling on the self-governing provinces of the church to restrain themselves. ``I consider it wrong for our church to depart from Scripture, especially where that Scripture has been endorsed by unvarying tradition of the church,'' he said.
A leading opponent of women in the priesthood, Bishop of London Graham Leonard, said during Monday's debate, ``I would not feel able to be in communion with a woman bishop or those consecrated by her.'' Willie Pwaisiho, Bishop of Malaita in Melanesia, called the debate ``heartbreaking'' and said that if the movement for women priests were the result of women's liberation, ``it is a Satanic act.''
Several African bishops said that in traditional African culture men performed the sacrificial role just as Jesus did in Christianity. A woman may be queen, prime minister, doctor, or business manager, but she may not offer sacrifices, said Ralph Hatendi, the Bishop of Harare in Zimbabwe. ``The male being is the minister of sacrifice by divine right,'' he said.
Other African bishops pointed to a desperate shortage of ministers in Africa as a strong reason for accepting women priests. American bishops also affirmed the contribution of women. ``Our people have been blessed by the priestly ministry of ordained women for more than a decade,'' said Edmond Browning, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA. The Episcopalians, who form the American branch of Anglicanism, have ordained more than 1,000 women priests since 1976.