Church of England approves women bishops in historic vote

YORK, United Kingdom (AFP) - The Church of England overcame bitter divisions Monday to vote in favour of allowing female bishops for the first time in its nearly 500-year history.

The decision reverses a previous shock rejection in 2012 and comes after intensive diplomacy by Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

Cheers erupted in the hall at the Church of England General Synod in York, northern England, as the measure passed.

The first women bishops could now be appointed before the end of the year.

The Church of England is the mother church of the global Anglican Communion, followed by some 80 million people in over 165 countries.

The results came in a series of three votes across different houses of the Church.

The House of Bishops voted 37 for, two against with one abstention, the House of Clergy voted 162 for, 25 against with four abstentions, and the House of Laity voted 152 for, 45 against with five abstentions.

The issue must now be debated by Britain's parliament, approved by Queen Elizabeth II and then come back to the General Synod in November as a formality before taking effect.

British Prime Minister David Cameron had earlier backed the change, saying that former oil executive Welby had "shown great leadership on this issue".

Welby had pressed for the appointment of women bishops since being named to the Church's top post in November 2012.

A yes vote does not compel Anglican churches in other countries to allow women bishops, but senior clergy say it sets a symbolic precedent that other nations would be likely to follow.

There are already Anglican women bishops in other countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia.

The principle of appointing women bishops had been strongly opposed by conservatives in the Church of England.

But many said they had been persuaded to support the current package of proposals due to assurances that their views would continue to be respected and they would not be forced to be ministered to by a female bishop.

Welby's de facto number two, Archbishop of York John Sentamu, had hinted at the frustration among top clergy over how long it has taken to resolve the issue as he opened the debate.

"This is the third time in two years we have embarked on a final approval debate on women bishops - you ought by now to be getting the hang of it," he joked.

Women priests were first ordained in 1994 and the Church of England has been debating whether they should be allowed to be bishops in earnest since 2000.

They currently make up around a third of the clergy.

The Church of England broke with the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th Century over King Henry VIII's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.

A string of supporters of the move had made their views heard on the floor of the General Synod as the debate started before the vote.

Emma Ineson, principal of a theological college in Bristol, south-west England, said her female students had been "dismayed, confused, discouraged" by the 2012 no vote.