By Avril Ormsby
LONDON (Reuters) - A vote to allow women bishops in the Church of England looks set to be derailed by its own supporters, who say a last-minute concession to conservative opponents is a step too far.
Pro-women bishop campaigners want a final vote at the church's General Synod, or parliament, on Monday to be delayed so the amendment can be sent back to the House of Bishops for reconsideration.
Before the amendment, future women bishops would have been obliged under a code of practice yet to be written to find a "suitable" alternative male bishop for dissenting parishes.
The amendment would go further, requiring them to find one who "shares the same theological convictions" as the dissenting parish.
Critics of the amendment say the change suggests a future woman bishop could not be trusted to appoint a suitable alternative male bishop for those parishes who request one.
Rachel Weir, chairwoman of WATCH, a group that campaigns for women bishops, said: "There is something deeply offensive about needing to put in something saying ‘well, we don't trust you to do this so we're going to make sure you do' in the legislation. What that says is quite shocking really."
Some traditionalist Anglo-Catholics are looking for an adjournment too "of some kind", while conservative evangelicals are being urged to vote against the draft legislation.
"It would seem to me that the bishops with the best of intentions tried to improve on something and they have in fact derailed it," religious commentator Clifford Longley said.
"They have enormous, infinite capacity for muddle, do they not?"
The consecration of women as bishops, along with same-sex marriages, is among the most divisive issues facing the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members worldwide.
That women in the Anglican mother church will follow their sisters in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States in breaking through the stained glass ceiling is not in doubt. The question is just when and on what terms.
An adjournment could delay a final vote until the November synod. But a defeat - which could happen if enough supporters feel they cannot pass the draft legislation as it stands - would mean women would have to wait at least five years to don the mitre.
Pro-women bishop campaigners who have fought more than a decade to vote on the matter say the amendment is a compromise too far.
One message on Twitter said: "We mustn't set prejudice into law in name of compromise".
"ANY OLD MALE BISHOP WON'T DO"
Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics are seeking more sacramental assurances, so they do not end up with a male bishop "tainted" by having been ordained by a woman.
About 50 Anglo-Catholic priests have taken up an offer from Pope Benedict and switched to Rome in recent years.
Conservative evangelicals also say they cannot accept the oversight of women bishops because of Biblical teaching.
A growing, wealthy and largely young section of the Church of England, they are hinting that some parishes may be reluctant to encourage men into ordained ministry if the vote goes against them, and could withhold money from central training funds.
"The furor created by some ... reveals most clearly the reason why those who hold to our Biblical position need legislative clarity, not just a code of practice if we are to continue to encourage young people to come forward for ordination," said Rod Thomas, chairman of the conservative evangelical group Reform.
Peter Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, an "open" evangelical who favors women's ordination, told Reuters the amendment was intended to reassure opponents and keep the broad church together.
"Because the evidence in Canada and America, where they have had women bishops for some time, is that people don't play fair," he said.
"Unfortunately some of the American bishops basically have allocated people who are totally out of sympathy with the parish they are looking after. Because they are male they are thought to be OK.
"Any old male bishop won't do."
He added: "Everybody thinks we have agreed to have women bishops.
"We are all longing for it to happen, even those who are opposed would like to get the discussion finished, especially when the rest of the world is looking at us and saying: why can't you sort this out?"
(Reporting by Avril Ormsby; editing by Andrew Roche)