Vatican regrets Anglican move toward women bishops

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VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican has expressed its disappointment with a July 7 decision by the Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, to move ahead with plans to allow the ordination of women bishops.

"We have learned with disappointment of the news of the vote by the Church of England that opens the way to the introduction of legislation that leads to the ordination of women bishops," said a July 8 statement from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

"Such a decision means a break from the apostolic tradition maintained by all the churches of the first millennium and is, therefore, a further obstacle for reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Church of England," said the statement published by the Vatican press office.

The 428 bishops, clergy and laypeople who make up the General Synod of the Church of England spent more than six hours July 7 debating what, if any, kinds of accommodation would be made to allow Anglicans who object to women bishops to continue to be part of the church.

The ideas included establishing nonterritorial dioceses with only male bishops or appointing male bishops with special powers to oversee the pastoral care of clergy and parishes that object to following a woman bishop.

At the end of the debate, the synod voted to reject all special forms of accommodation and instead to draft a "national code of practice," which could include suggesting a woman bishop delegate her care for objectors to a "complementary bishop" who would be male.

The final Church of England legislation that would lead to the ordination of a woman bishop is expected to be about two or three years away from completion.

However, the July 7 vote was seen as a clear signal that the majority of the members of the Church of England support ordaining women bishops and that the church intends to do so.

It also made clear that no special structures would be set up for those who object on theological grounds to the ordination of women bishops.

Before the vote, more than 1,000 bishops and clergy had expressed their opposition to the ordination of women bishops and made it clear that if special provisions were not made they would have to consider leaving the Church of England.

British newspapers reported July 6 that two Anglican bishops opposed to the ordination of women bishops had come to Rome for discussions with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, refused to comment on the reports, saying that if such a meeting took place it was private.

In 2006, members of the General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion expressing their opinion that ordaining women bishops is consistent with the Anglican faith.

Before that vote, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's chief ecumenist, had told top members of the Church of England that ordaining women bishops would mean that the goal of restoring full communion between Catholics and Anglicans "would realistically no longer exist" because it could not exist "without full communion in the episcopal office."

He had said a further consequence of a resolution in favor of women bishops would be that the Catholic Church would inevitably continue to refuse to recognize the validity of Anglican orders.

Ecumenical discussions between the churches on "Apostolicae Curae," the 1896 papal bull that declared Anglican orders "absolutely null and utterly void," had "justifiably aroused promising expectations" of a change in the Catholic position, he said at the 2006 meeting with leaders of the Church of England.

But the growing practice of Anglicans' ordaining women to the priesthood cooled the discussion, he said, and the ordination of women bishops would make the discussions more difficult.

On several occasions, Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Kasper have expressed their hopes that the Anglican Communion can remain united. But they have said unity must be based on fidelity to the Scriptures and tradition, including moral issues.

The Vatican's July 8 statement said that at the invitation of Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Cardinal Kasper would have an opportunity to speak during the July 16-Aug. 3 Lambeth Conference, in England, "to present the Catholic position" regarding issues currently causing tension within the Anglican Communion.

The issues include structures for maintaining the unity of the church, the ordination of women bishops, the ordination of openly gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions.

The Lambeth Conference, held every 10 years, brings together most of the world's Anglican bishops for reflection, prayer and discussions about common concerns.

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