"There is no doubt that we are at an unsettled moment in the Church of England," the Secretary General of the Church of England General Synod told journalists on Monday.
Outlining the agenda for the July Synod in York, William Fittall said that tension over the scheduled four-day debate on women bishops was being compounded by weekend reports of an unauthorized church "wedding" blessing for two homosexual clergymen last month, and an imminent conference of conservative Anglicans in the Holy Land.
The Global Anglican Future Conference will bring conservative Anglican clergy to Jerusalem on June 22-29 to "prepare for an Anglican future in which the Gospel is uncompromised" – referring to their dissatisfaction with the U.S. Episcopal Church's decision to embrace homosexuality. The conference takes place just weeks before the Lambeth Conference, a decennial meeting of bishops from across the global Anglican Communion.
"This was always going to be a big summer," said Fittall. "Lambeth is a big event in the wider Communion and the fact that it is considering women bishops goes to the heart of what kind of church we want to be. The weekend's story has caused further anxiety on the part of many."
The Bishop of London, the Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres, has launched an investigation into reports that the Rev. Peter Cowell and the Rev. David Lord exchanged rings and vows at a service of blessing at St. Bartholomew the Great Church in the City of London. Current Church of England rules do not permit such services for same-sex partnerships.
Fittall predicted that the debate on women bishops, however, would "overshadow" the York Synod.
"This is going to be the issue that is there throughout and the whole of synod is a bit anxious because nobody is confident about what the outcome will be," he said. "It is genuinely hard to call."
Fittall added that there would be no quick closure to the debate and that the motion would take several years to pass through the legislative process.
The motion, drawn up by the House of Bishops, seeks to rescind the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 and replace it with a "code of practice." Although the motion promises "special arrangements" for opponents of women bishops, some fear they will not go far enough.
Women were allowed to be ordained as priests beginning in November 1992 when the General Synod of the Church of England voted for its approval. In 1993, the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod was introduced in order to protect congregations who felt that women should not minister as priests in their local church. The measure recognized differing opinions on the issue and that such a change needed to be tested and received by the Church.
More than 500 priests left the Church of England after it accepted women into the priesthood, many receiving compensation. Fittall said there were no plans at present to offer similar financial compensation to clergy who choose to leave over the ordination of female bishops.
Reform, the evangelical group within the Church of England, released a statement Monday urging members of General Synod to "pull back from the brink" of the "deep division" it believes will result from accepting the motion un-amended.
Rod Thomas, Reform's chairman and a member of General Synod, said, "A refusal by Synod to provide legal provisions for those who disagree with women bishops is tantamount to a clear decision to exclude many faithful Anglicans from the Church of England.
"We want to urge Synod members to pull back from the brink, to recognise the deep division that will occur if no legislative provisions are made."
Fittall said he did not expect the Church of England to split on the issue. "I urge caution over the wilder stories," he said. "I wouldn't write us out just yet."
He pointed to the record numbers of people training for ordination in the Church of England – more than 1,500 – saying it was "good news" for the Church despite the financial challenges brought on by the increase. To help cover the costs, churches will be asked to increase their contributions to the Church treasury by 6 percent.