EPISCOPAL Church bishops have agreed to disagree over the ordination of women as Episcopal priests and bishops. The agreement, contained in a statement issued in Philadelphia last week by the church's House of Bishops, ends the threat of a schism between the majority favoring women's ordination and traditionalists opposed to it.
Traditionalists met in Fort Worth, Texas, in June to organize the ``Evangelical Synod of America,'' but most remained in the main church organization.
The issue of women's place in the church came to a head in February when the Rev. Barbara Harris was ordained as suffragan (assistant) bishop of the diocese of Massachusetts. She is the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion, which includes churches around the world descended from the Church of England.
``We joyfully affirm ordained women ... in the ministries which they exercise in and through the church,'' the bishops said last week. In a key concession to traditionalists, however, they noted that ``within Anglicanism those who believe that women should not be ordained hold a recognized theological position.''
Church policy allows for traditionalist parishes that object to being ministered to by women bishops to petition for an ``episcopal visitor'' - that is, a bishop from another diocese - provided the parish's own bishop approves. Last week's compromise, besides granting the theological validity of the traditionalists' position, reaffirms that no parish will receive an episcopal visitor without the prior approval of its own bishop.
``What was done was to head off the threat of traditionalist bishops going into a diocese, without the permission of the diocesan bishop, to minister to parishes who simply object to their own bishop,'' says church spokesman James Solheim.
For now, the reaffirmed policy has meaning only in the Massachusetts diocese, the church's largest, since the Rev. Ms. Harris is the church's only woman bishop. Diocesan Bishop David Johnson says, ``When the official visitation to a parish by Bishop Harris is denied, either Assistant Bishop David Birney or I will make that visitation and in a short time thereafter I with Bishop Harris will visit that congregation on an informal basis to begin a dialogue with all concerned.''
``God's hand is in this,'' Fort Worth Bishop Clarence Pope, a traditionalist leader, told a news conference last week. ``What we have done is simply to remove the siege mentality. Our convictions remain the same, but we've got an atmosphere now in which I think we can actually go forward together without compromising our beliefs.''
``There is peace in the family - at least for now,'' Mr. Solheim says.
The ordination of women was one area of disagreement between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches discussed at this week's landmark visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, to Pope John Paul II.
A document signed by the two church leaders committed the churches to ``the restoration of visible unity and full ecclesial communion.'' But it noted that the ordination of women in some Anglican provinces ``prevents reconciliation between us even where there is otherwise progress toward agreement.''
Archbishop Runcie's proposal to grant the pope ``universal primacy'' over Anglicans is already causing controversy in Britain. But practical unity between the churches is still a long way off.
Anglicans do not accept the doctrines of papal infallibility or the ``immaculate conception'' of the Virgin Mary, and disagree with the Catholic Church's ban on artificial birth control. Catholics disagree with some Anglican churches' acceptance of divorce and abortion and the Anglican policy of allowing married priests.
Runcie says he has in mind a ``spiritual'' and not a ``political'' primacy for the pope over Anglicans. He reportedly rejected charges that his proposal undermines the British Constitution or the role of the Queen, the church's titular head.
Anglicanism has long been distinguished by its ability to harbor Christians with very different beliefs, of which the recent Episcopal Church compromise is yet another example. But Runcie's proposals may test that ability.