Church edges closer to backing women bishops

The Australian Anglican Church has edged one step closer to appointing its first woman bishop and is considering bringing in male bishops to minister to congregations who reject female authority.

The diocese of Canberra and Goulburn's governing body voted by an overwhelming majority at the weekend in favour of women bishops. Melbourne and Perth have already given in-principle support for women bishops.

Legislation paving the way for Australia's first female Anglican bishops has been drafted for consideration by the church's national governing body, which meets next month.

The bill, called a clarification canon, contains a clause to establish an "alternative ministry" for parishes that oppose women bishops. Under its provisions a substitute male bishop could visit parishes for specific events such as confirmations but the presiding woman bishop would maintain diocesan oversight.

Dr Muriel Porter, a member of the church's national committee that drafted the bill, said a two-thirds majority in each of three synod houses - clergy, bishops and laity - was required for the canon to be provisionally approved, three-quarters for it to take immediate effect.

A similar attempt in 2001 was withdrawn. The first women priests were ordained in Australia in 1992 but Sydney is among a handful of 23 dioceses in Australia which does not recognise women priests.

The diocese will again spearhead opposition to women bishops on the basis that the appointments would be contrary to Bible teachings.

Archbishop Peter Jensen told the Herald that Sydney would oppose the women bishop vote "not because we are against women but because of the Bible teachings about the structure of the church".

Dr Porter said there were now more than 500 women clergy in the Anglican Church in Australia, of whom more than 400 are priests.

At the weekend, the search for a new Anglican Archbishop of Adelaide to replace Dr Ian George was restarted when the two male frontrunners failed to win the required support.

"If nearly one sixth of our clergy are women - in Melbourne its one-fifth - that means we are restricting our talent pool around the national church," Dr Porter said. "Two highly competent women were on the list to become archbishop of Adelaide, one an archdeacon, but the diocese couldn't pursue the nomination because we are still waiting on the legislation. There is a body of legal opinion that says you can have a woman bishop but it is far more preferable that the national church gives its blessing by passing this clarification canon."

The Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, George Browning, is taking legal advice as to whether his diocese has the authority to appoint women bishops without the assent of the church's national synod.

He has reserved the right to vote down any draft law which would seek to establish an alternative ministry for dissenting parishes, saying he was committed to equal freedoms, rights and responsibilities for all bishops regardless of gender.

"I will do my very best that any legislation passed by synod does not limit the authority of women bishops and differentiate between women and men," he said.