THE Archbishop of Canterbury has acknowledged that a schism in the Church of England may be triggered by last week's decision to let women be ordained to the priesthood.
As a minority of clergy and laity angered by a move overturning 450 years of tradition met to plan future strategy, Archbishop George Carey said he would do everything possible to persuade them to stay in the church's mainstream. He argued that the historic vote by his church's ruling synod was "the will of God" and should be accepted.
Dr. Carey's pleas were directed mainly at some 1,000 of the Church of England's 10,000 priests who told an opinion poll conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation that they would desert the Church of England if the ordination of women went ahead as planned. One in 5 Anglican churchgoers told the same survey that they would not accept women as priests.
The archbishop, who spoke in favor of women priests during the synod debate, said after the vote: "Please don't go elsewhere. Stay with us. Let's work together."
He told the synod: "We must draw on all our available talent if we are to be a credible church engaged in a mission to an increasingly confused and lost world. We are in danger of not being heard if women are exercising leadership in every area of society's life save the ordained priesthood."
But high-profile Anglicans in the British government declined Carey's pleas and said they would either leave the church completely or join congregations that refused to be ministered to by women priests.
After the vote, Social Security Minister Ann Widdecombe said she was leaving the Church of England after 27 years because "the wounds caused by the decision will not heal."
John Selwyn Gummer, secretary of state for agriculture and a leading Anglican layman, commented: "I have always said that if the Church of England decided to ordain women, it would become a sect, and I could not be a member of a sect." And Patrick Cormack, a senior Conservative members of Parliament who is vice president of the English Clergy Association, said it was "impossible for women to become priests."
The Church of England is established in Britain's unwritten constitution. The Queen is described as "head of the church and defender of the faith."
In the synod debate, opponents of women priests fell into two main categories: those who believe there is no scriptural basis for ordaining women as priests, and others unhappy with how the legislation was drafted.
But for some 1,300 women Anglican deacons, the decision by all three houses of the synod - representing bishops, clergy, and laity - was cause for rejoicing.
Deaconess Maggie Durran, who serves in a London parish, said the vote gave hope to the church. "It's a way forward and makes the church fit into the society we live in," she said when Carey announced the result.
June Osborne, a deaconess with experience in England's inner-cities, claimed that the decision would "permit my vocation as a priest to be tested." Like other women who wish to be priests and who spoke in the synod debate, she claimed that opponents of the proposal were relying on sentiments that had no place in modern society.
The synod had debated ordaining women priests for 20 years before producing the two-thirds vote in each of its houses required for approval. Even then the motion was carried in the house of laity by the barest of margins.
The decision still must win Parliament's endorsement and the Queen's assent, but few doubt they will approve it.
Opponents of the legislation are making it plain that they will fight the legislation when it goes before Parliament. Two organizations - Women Against the Ordination of Women, and Cost of Conscience - issued a joint statement calling on members of Parliament to defer the passage of any bill aimed at endorsing the synod's vote.
Sources close to the archbishop conceded that about one-third of Church of England clergy and laity were opposed to passage of legislation by Parliament. If 1,000 priests decide to leave for reasons of conscience, the church will owe about $170 million in severance pay.
Carey's worries about a possible schism arising from the fine print of the legislation which his church has approved. It gives individual parishes the right to refuse to accept female priests, and this means that a substantial segment of the church is likely to opt out of the new system. Thirteen of the church's 52 bishops voted against the legislation, and many of them are likely to resist female priests in their dioceses.
It will probably be 18 months before any woman is ordained, and the archbishop has said he will use that period to call for "calm, reflection, and a spirit of charity" by all concerned.
Like other proponents of women priests, Carey has argued that in the long run their presence will help to boost congregations. Church officials accept that 1.84 million people in Britain attend Anglican churches each week, compared with 1.95 million Roman Catholics.
Within hours of the synod vote Pope John Paul II said it constituted a "new and grave obstacle" to relations between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. But Cardinal Basil Hume, head of the Roman Catholic church in England, told the archbishop: "Our ecumenical contacts will continue."