Anglican church allows women bishops

Sydney, Australia - Australia could have its first Anglican woman bishop as early as next year following a decision by the church's highest court.

The head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Philip Aspinall, said the appellate tribunal had decided there was nothing in the church's constitution that would prevent a woman becoming a bishop.

In 2005, a group of 25 members of the church's national parliament - the General Synod - asked the tribunal for its view on the lawfulness of women bishops.

The tribunal, by a majority of four to three, today found that it was possible to consecrate women bishops.

However, it said it could only occur in a diocese that had both adopted a 1992 church law allowing women priests and which had ensured its own laws and constitution allowed it.

"So basically there is now nothing in the (church's) constitution to prevent a woman becoming a bishop," Dr Aspinall told reporters in Brisbane.

Among the larger dioceses in Australia that could go ahead with women bishops were Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, he said.

But the tribunal found a 40-year-old church law still prevented women being assistant bishops - those who are not in charge of a diocese, but look after a smaller region.

Dr Aspinall said while he personally welcomed the decision, he recognised that the prospect of women bishops would be "difficult or distressing" for some.

"One of our first priorities must be setting in place arrangements for the pastoral care of those who maintain a conscientious objection to women bishops," Dr Aspinall said.

He said such arrangements could involve allowing a male bishop to minister to dissenting parishes in a diocese with a women bishop.

Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen, whose diocese led the case against women bishops, said he was disappointed by the decision.

"While I respect the judicial procedures which have led to this result I am disappointed that the matter has now been resolved in this way," Dr Jensen said.

"Those who are opposed to this development base their objection on conscientious grounds as a matter of biblical principle.

"The innovation will inevitably create ongoing difficulties around the church for decades to come."

Dr Muriel Porter, a leading advocate for women clergy, welcomed the decision.

"It means women are at last recognised as fully human, fully equal in the constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia," Dr Porter said.

Dr Aspinall said Australia's Anglican bishops had agreed earlier this year to hold off on consecrating any women bishops until at least their next national meeting in April 2008.

Women bishops are currently in place in New Zealand, the United States and Canada, but none has been consecrated in Australia to date.

Women priests have been allowed in the Anglican Church in Australia for more than a decade.