The Church of England ends centuries of male-only leadership Monday when it consecrates its first female bishop in the face of fierce opposition from traditionalists.
Libby Lane will become a bishop in a ceremony at York Minster in northern England, six months after the Church voted to allow women to take its top jobs for the first time since its formation in 1534.
Moderates hope the move will be the start of a new chapter for the Church of England as it struggles for relevance in a multi-cultural society where only six percent of the population regularly attends an act of worship.
But her appointment is strongly opposed by traditionalists in the Church of England, who believe the Bible teaches that the clergy’s top rung is no place for a woman.
Lane has admitted she is daunted by the challenge ahead of her, saying she was “aware that what I say and do will be heard by millions” in an interview released by the Church shortly before the event.
“If my appointment encourages a single young girl to lift her eyes up a bit and to realise she has capacity and potential and that those around her don’t need to dictate what is possible, then I would be really honoured,” she added.
The Church of England is seen as the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has some 85 million followers in 165 countries.
Anglican churches in countries including the United States, Canada and Australia have already appointed women bishops.
– ‘Gracious restraint’ –
As part of a careful reconciliation process led by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby which delivered a “Yes” vote on female bishops after decades of painful debate, parishes which do not want to be led by a woman because of their theological convictions will be able to vote to be tended by a man instead.
The scale of the divisions was highlighted when the Christian Today website reported that the bishops who perform the traditional laying of hands on Lane at the ceremony in York will be asked not to do the same for a conservative priest being made a bishop days later.
The bishops have been asked to show “gracious restraint” as traditionalists believe that they should not be touched by those who have touched a woman in a sacramental context.
Moderates in the church hope that appointment as Bishop of Stockport, an affluent area of the city of Manchester in northwest England, will soon be followed by the appointment of more female bishops.
“Women in senior positions are not in themselves sufficient to change the church in all the ways it must change to survive and even flourish,” the Guardian newspaper wrote in an editorial.
“But their appointment to positions of visible power and influence is an entirely necessary precondition for all the other changes that must come.”
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