Welby braced for 'difficulty' with Rome as Church of England prepares to approve women bishops

A long-awaited vote, expected next month, to allow women to become bishops in the Church of England is likely to set back relations with the Roman Catholic Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury has acknowledged.

The Most Rev Justin Welby, a strong supporter of women in episcopate, said he was conscious he would have to “deal with” the ramifications but insisted it was a “difficulty” rather than a serious blow to hopes of eventual unity.

Speaking as he met Archbishop Welby in Rome earlier this week, Pope Francis described the more than 400 years of division between the two churches as a “scandal”.

Although the two churches began discussing the possibility of full visible unity more than 50 years ago, moves such as the ordination women priests in the Church of England and the establishment under Pope Benedict of a special branch of the Catholic Church for former Anglican have accentuated differences.

But the day-to-day relationship between the two churches is currently considered to be better than at any time since the split from Rome became permanent under Elizabeth I.

Speaking to The Tablet, the Catholic magazine, at the end of his three-day visit to Rome, Archbishop Welby acknowledged how the vote on women bishops is likely to be seen in Rome.

“I am very conscious that this is something we have to deal with,” he said.

“This is a difficulty, but a difficulty that we can handle in the context of a good relationship rather than a pit into which we fall.”

After decades of wrangling, a vote giving final approval to women bishops is expected to be passed by the Church of England's General Synod in York on July 14.

The church was thrown into crisis November 2012 when women bishops legislation, prepared during a tortuous 12-year legal process and overwhelmingly backed by parishes, failed to pass.

Although three quarters of Synod members voted in favour, it failed under the church’s complicated voting procedures, falling six votes short among the laity.

Amid fury in parishes and calls for Parliament to intervene, Archbishop Welby oversaw a fast-track plan to bring the issue back before Synod, sidestepping procedural rules which would have prevented a fresh attempt for several years.

Significantly, among those who accompanied Archbishop Welby to meet the Pope was the Rev Nicky Gumbel, the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, the lively evangelical parish which pioneered the Alpha course, the short introduction to Christianity taken by more than 15 million around the world.