The 12th General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia has accepted a Bill in principle removing all the legal obstacles to the consecration of women to the episcopate (women bishops).
In a secret ballot, the General Synod voted 135 "for" and 95 "against", with two abstentions, on a motion to accept the Bill in principle. The move has allowed the Bill to be debated in detail at the General Synod and a vote on the final amended Bill is expected to be taken later tonight.
The motion was moved by Dr Muriel Porter, of Melbourne, and seconded by Bishop of Bunbury, David McCall.
The result of any amendments and the final vote will be released once they are known.
The women bishops Bill is the result of wide consultation throughout the church by a working group formed following the last General Synod in Adelaide in February 1998.
The Bill is modelled on the Law of the Church of England Clarification Canon 1992 - the church law which removed any possible legal obstacles to the ordination of women as priests.
But it goes further, giving the General Synod the opportunity to recognise that there are differences of opinion in the church as to whether a woman can or should perform the duties of a bishop, but also recognises and affirms the essential unity of the church under God within a tolerable diversity.
Importantly, the Bill includes a protocol relating to the provision of episcopal (bishop) oversight and ministry for those unable to accept the ministry of a female bishop.
The Bill states: "In any diocese in which a woman is appointed as bishop, the bishop of the diocese must ensure that appropriate episcopal pastoral oversight and ministry is provided for persons whose conscience precludes them from accepting the ministry of a bishop who is a woman ... No member of clergy or lay member of this church shall suffer any discrimination or prejudice because he or she in conscience accepts female bishops, priests or deacons or does not so accept them." (Sections 6.1, 8)
At a local level, parishes will be able to vote to have a bishop from another region or diocese minister to them, if they wish to have episcopal ministry by a bishop other than a female bishop.
As a "special Bill", it will require a two-thirds majority of the General Synod at the final voting stage. If passed, it becomes a "provisional canon" and must then be considered by each diocese. If, at the next General Synod in 2004, the provisional canon is passed by two-thirds majority at the final voting stage, it will become a "canon" and go back to dioceses to consider and adopt or not adopt.
The General Synod may vote on the Bill as one body, but it may be the case that a sufficient number of members (five bishops or 10 clergy or laity) call for a vote by "Houses". This would mean the House of Bishops, House of Clergy and House of Laity would vote separately, and to pass, the question must pass each house.
There are 11 women bishops in the worldwide Anglican Communion, in New Zealand, the United States and Canada.
On behalf of the Standing Committee of General Synod, two General Synod members, Dr Muriel Porter, from Melbourne, and Dr Ann Young, from Sydney, today gave a special presentation of two perspectives on the issue, followed by questions of clarification and a small group discussion.