LONDON -- The Church of England narrowly voted Wednesday to allow the ordination of women as priests, breaking the church's tradition of a male-only clergy despite the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church and the threat of 1,000 clerics to resign the priesthood.
The General Synod, the main council of the church, voted to allow the ordination of women. All three houses of the church body approved the measure by the necessary two-thirds majority vote, with bishops endorsing it 39-13, clergy 176-74 and laity 169-82.
The decision was the result of more than 17 years of campaigning and was expected to alienate many within the church. About 1,000 priests from the Church of England have threatened to leave the church if it approved the ordination of women.
The Vatican criticized the move as 'a new and grave' setback to any hopes of reconciliation between the two churches, which split more than 400 years ago when the pope refused to grant King Henry VIII a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his Spanish wife. The two churches had been trying to work toward reunification.
The legislation approved by the Anglican General Synod Wednesday must be approved by the British Parliament and receive the royal assent from Queen Elizabeth II. The Church of England is an established religion in Britain and the queen is its head.
It is unlikely England will ordain it first woman priest before the summer of 1994 and even then bishops will be free not to ordain women priests in their own dioceses.
The religious head of the church, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, urged the synod to vote in favor of ordaining women, saying the church would lose its credibility in modern society if it did not take the step. Then he offered a prayer.
Carey urged the council to observe a traditional silence as the vote was read out, but women religious leaders in the synod barely suppressed joy. Outside the synod building both men and women clergy and their congregations celebrated the result.
The crucial house of laity vote was as close as it could be -- a majority of just 2 votes over the two-thirds majority needed.
After the vote Carey warned against 'hasty or ill-considered action' and called for a period of quiet reflection and deep prayer in which emotions could be calmed and not further inflamed.
He said the vote would not alter the creeds, the scriptures or the faith of the church.
'We are fearful too that this decision will irretrievably fracture the tradition and character of the ordained priesthood as we have inherited it, but I believe that these fears which in various ways we'll share are not well rounded. God calls us to take the risk of faith. I believe God is also calling his church to ordain women to the priesthood,' he said.
Carey added that the delay of at least a year before the decision could become law would give 'time to work out how consciences could be safeguarded.'
If approved by Parliament and the queen, it will be 18 months before women can give the communion, blessing and absolution in the Church of England. The highest position a women can attain at present is that of deacon. There are currently an estimated 1,400 women waiting to take up the duties of a priest.
Carey now must attempt to hold the church together following the controversial move. Although Anglican churches in other countries have gone ahead with the ordination of women with the approval of the synod, many in the British church oppose the move.
One government minister said Wednesday night she was leaving the church after 27 years in protest.
'This is an extremely sad and serious day for all of those who regard the Anglican church as a catholic and apostolic church,' said Patrick Cormack, a Conservative member of Parliament and the vice president of the English Clergy Association.
'The decision of the synod places it now as an unequivocal Protestant church,' he said. 'To many of us there is a great deal of difference between a minister and priest, and I fear that like many of those who think as I do, I shall have to reflect on my position as a member of the Anglican Church.'
The bishop of Sheffield threatened to resign, 'I do not see space within this legislation for those who are its opponents. It is no wonder that these words about generosity and caring and charity grate so much on us.'
But despite the position of the Vatican, which remains opposed to the ordination of women, Roman Catholic Cardinal Basil Hume, the archbishop of Westminster, said the two religious bodies would continue to try to make progress toward reconciliation.
'The decision of the Church of England does not signal a breakdown in ecumenical relations,' Hume said. 'We shall continue to pray and work together despite the new and additional obstacle created by the Church of England.'
As an indication of the depth of division over the decision, the Synod went on to vote Wednesday on a package of benefits and grants for those resigning from the church because of the decision.