1,300 clergy threaten to defect in the women bishops row

Canon Lucy Winkett

Canon Lucy Winkett, precentor of St Paul's Cathedral, is one of the writers of the letter to House of Bishops

Anne Cryer

Ann Cryer, MP for Keighley, attended a press conference at Westminster Abbey in support

More than 1,300 clergy have written to the Archbishop of Canterbury saying they will defect from the Church of England if women are consecrated as bishops.

Members of the group, which includes 11 serving bishops, say they will take decisive action if two votes are passed this weekend to allow female bishops.

The move comes as the Anglican community is divided over the issue of homosexual clergy.

The letter, sent to Dr Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of York John Sentamu, comes before the meeting of the General Synod, the Church's governing body, in York on Friday.

They will make a landmark decision about the future of women in the Church.

The letter was signed by a total of 1,333 clergy and they have said they will only accept women bishops with legal safeguards so they can have a protected network of parishes.

This would mean people could worship under male clergy and bishops if they objected.

The two archbishops are thought to support the introduction of women bishops, but liberals within the Church are concerned that if safeguards are attached it would encourage discrimination by creating a 'church within a church'.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is being pressured by evangelicals opposed to gays, and traditionalists opposed to women's ordination.

The twin crisis is unprecedented since the Reformation devastated the Roman Catholic Church in England in the 16th century.

Most of the signatories come from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church.

Many will attempt to seek a ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. The church is short of priests and is expected to welcome them again, even if they are married with families, as it did when the Church of England ordained women priests.

Of the clergy who signed the protest letter, 60 per cent are still serving. Among the retired bishops is the former Bishop of Chichester, the Right Rev Eric Kemp. Some women deacons have also joined the protest.

The signatories to the letter represent 10 per cent of all practising clergy and hundreds of recently retired priests still active in the Church

At the same time 1,276 women clergy, 1,012 male clergy and 1,916 lay church members who support women bishops signed a statement objecting to the prospect of ' discriminatory' legislation to safeguard opponents.

Yesterday Dr Williams condemned a conservative breakaway that threatens to take 40million members from the Anglican Church worldwide.

He said a separate organisation for conservative Anglicans 'will not pass the test of legitimacy'. His intervention followed the decision of bishops opposed to gay rights to form their own group within the Anglican Communion, the 400-year-old network of sister churches of the Church of England.

Members of the new group would not recognise churches like the U.S. Episcopal Church which have gay bishops, and would distance themselves from the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A majority of the leaders of the breakaway move-agreed at a conference in Jerusalem last week-are bishops from Africa and other Third World regions.

Some argue that the attempt by liberal clergy from Britain, America and Canada to alter traditional thinking on sexual morality and impose gay rights across the worldwide Church is a new form of colonialism.

Dr Williams warned African bishops, who intend to take over the leadership of conservative Anglicans in America and other liberal countries, of the 'obvious strain of responsibly exercising episcopal or primatial authority across enormous geographical and cultural divides'.

The Archbishop, who has condemned the 'abiding colonial shadow' left by the British Empire, rejected the idea that the spread of gay rights is a new form of colonial power play.

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