The Church of England on Monday voted to remove legal obstacles to the ordination of women bishops despite conservatives threatening to become Roman Catholic.
The members of the churchs governing General Synod, meeting in the northern city of York, approved a resolution that would start the process of removing church laws blocking the ordination of women as bishops.
After four hours of impassioned debate, forty-one bishops approved the motion and six voted against it; 167 clergymen and women voted for it and 46 against it.
The motion was brought by Bishop of Southwark Tom Butler, who told the 500 delegates that women already played key roles in the Anglican church.
"In no way can it be claimed that in seeking at this time to test the mind of the Church of England we act hastily or precipitately," said Butler. I believe that there are good ecclesiological and theological reasons why women should now be able to be ordained bishop."
According to the Associated Press, the decision-making process is lengthy, and the issue must be debated and later brought back to the synod for further ruling. It will likely take at least four years before the first woman bishop gets elected.
Nonetheless, the vote marks the first step in opening up the episcopate the community of bishops to women. Bishops play a key role in the Anglican Communion since they oversee dioceses and ordain new priests.
Currently, 14 of the worlds 38 Anglican Churches have already decided to allow women bishops. In the Church of England the mother of the 77-million-member Anglican Communion women priests have been ordained for 12 years and half those training as Anglican clergy are now women.
Despite these figures, some senior Anglican officials said they would join the Roman Catholic faith if their church ordains women bishops.
Andrew Burnham, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, told the Sunday Times A woman bishop wouldnt be a bishop because a bishop is someone whose ministry is acceptable through the ages to all other bishops.
Ebbsfleet, who added that he would consider becoming Roman Catholic if the move is approved, is one of many Anglican leaders who defend the all-male clergy status quo. They say Jesus Christ chose only men as his Apostles the forerunners of modern-day bishops.
"A Church of England with women bishops would no longer have a united episcopate. Bishops would not longer be what they say they are. I would have to leave, he said, adding that some 800 priests would likely leave the Church in protest.
In the 1990s, about 400 priests and thousands of laity abandoned the Church of England to protest the ordination of women priests. According to Reuters, the Catholic Church accepted about 200 married Anglican priests into its clergy in Britain.
Other bishops stood in favor of the change and said the change will likely be popular.
"My sense is that the vast majority of people in the Church of England do support this, Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Reading, told BBC.
The U.S. Episcopal Church is one of only of three Anglican churches that have already ordained women bishops. Women bishops are allowed in 11 others and 23 of the churches have no provisions for them. Eight member churches refuse to ordain women as priests or deacons.