LONDON — THE Church of England set its official seal on the ordination of women on Feb. 22, clearing the way for the first female clerics to make their historic entry into the priesthood next month.
After years of stormy debate, the church's ruling body made women priests legal under religious statute with a simple show of hands and archbishops' signatures on an ecclesiastical document known as a canon.
The vote in the domed debating chamber of the General Synod in London, disrupted only by a protest from a single dissenting priest, finally enshrined what is the most momentous and divisive change in the church since its break with Rome in 1534.
Although the outcome was not in doubt, would-be female priests hailed the vote as the culmination of their decades-long battle to convince the male hierachy of the church that a woman's place was in the pulpit as well as the pew.
``Today has been the completion of our long struggle,'' said Cathy Milford of the pressure group called the Movement for the Ordination of Women, who is to be ordained in April. ``But we'll be saving our celebrations for the actual ordinations.''
The issue has convulsed the church and prompted a stream - but not a feared exodus - of angry defectors to the Roman Catholic church.
Church leaders have so far averted a schism by setting up a system of roving bishops to minister to clergy and congregations unable to accept women priests.
Die-hard protesters, who on Feb. 21 failed in a last-minute legal challenge, staged a mock funeral procession to Anglican headquarters at London's Church House to symbolize what they believe to be the death of the old, male-dominated church.
They carried a coffin and laid a wreath saying ``Rest in Peace Church of England'' on the steps of the building.
The leader of the protest, London vicar Paul Wiliamson, later made an angry outburst from the gallery of the wood-paneled chamber as the General Synod declared an overwhelming vote in favor of admitting women priests.
``You have just lost the Church of England and its assets,'' he shouted. ``We will have the doctrine tested in every court in the land and Europe.'' Mr. Williamson's outburst earned him a rebuke for his ``insensitivity'' from church leader Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey.
WITH the vote out of the way, the process of ordaining the country's first batch of women priests will begin March 12 in the solemn surroundings of Bristol Cathedral in southwest England.
The first women will celebrate communion on the following day, marked as Mother's Day in Britain.
At least 1,200 women, many of them deacons, are lining up to enter the priesthood in the next few months.
Traditionalist clergy believe the ordination of women flies in the face of Christ's choice of exclusively male disciples and exceeds church authority over religious doctrine.
But supporters say clergy gained the right to decide such matters for themselves when King Henry VIII set up the church in the 16th century to be able to divorce his first wife.