Putting Women at the Altar

The most riveting show on British television last week was, of all things, a live, one-hour religious broadcast from inside the Church of England's debating hall. The climax came when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, dryly announced that each of the church's governing houses-bishops, clergy and laity-had voted to ordain women to the Anglican priesthood. The margin was wafer thin: if two of the lay delegates had voted otherwise, the motion would have fallen short of the required two-thirds majority. Outside in the chill night air, candles held by hundreds of the church's female deacons gave way to sparklers and fireworks. "I'm delighted, surprised-and in need of a drink," said the Rev. Jane Sinclair, who had driven down to London from Nottingham for the historic event.

Although the church's decision will not take effect until 1994 (the action must be ratified by Parliament and the queen), its impact on Christian ecumenism was immediate. In England, where there are now more active Roman Catholics than Anglicans, Cardinal Basil Hume said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by the verdict. But in the eyes of his church, he added, the question of ordaining women "is not simply a matter of equality or justice. Nor can it be decided exclusively because of changed values and attitudes of society toward women, significant though these are." Even though Rome does not recognize the validity of the Anglican priesthood or its sacraments, representatives of the two churches have been trying since 1966 to reconcile their differences. The Church of England's decision, says Msgr. Kevin McDonald, the Vatican's liaison to the Anglicans, "puts that goal out of sight."

The Church of England already has 1,350 women deacons, and they are prime candidates for promotion to the priesthood. But the risk of schism is high. Many priests do not a with Carey that "God is calling us to ordain women to the priesthood." One group of 3,000 conservative clergymen, called Cost of Conscience, claims that at least one third of them will bolt from the church. "There is no doubt there will be a serious hemorrhage," says the Rev. David Silk, the archdeacon of Leicester. But other dissidents think no more than 200 will give up their church-supported salaries. "After all," says Father Robert Tickle, a Bedfordshire priest, "we're in the middle of a recession."