Not since King Henry VIII broke with the papacy 458 years ago has the normally decorous Church of England known such passion as it did last week, when it swept away by a margin of two votes the rule that only men may serve as Anglican priests. Despite pleas for prayer and calm, the controversy will echo throughout the Anglican Communion, and reverberate through all of Christianity, for years to come. On one side are those who believe that the mission of Christ's church is damaged when half its members are denied the chance to use their God-given gifts. On the other are those who are equally devout in their faith that the male priesthood was instituted by Jesus Christ himself 19 centuries ago when he called 12 men as his Apostles.
The debate over the status of women, with all its theological and personal dramas, represents a larger clash between venerable religious beliefs and social movements that have affected much of the world over the past generation. Last week it was the Anglicans; this week the Roman Catholic Church faces its own gender battles as the U.S. bishops meet in Washington to wrestle with the church's controversial policies on women. Activists believe they are caught up in one of Christendom's great and historic transformations. "The last time there was such a ground swell that was not heeded was the Protestant Reformation," says feminist Sandra Schneiders, an Immaculate Heart sister teaching at California's Jesuit School of Theology.
Among Christians inspired by feminism, especially in English-speaking countries, a threshold was crossed last week; but the broader cultural shift has been occurring for decades and is fast gaining momentum. In permitting the ordination of women, the Church of England joined a transformation that has altered other Protestant denominations since the early 1950s and that has already been embraced by the independent Anglican churches of Canada, New Zealand and the U.S., with Australia almost certain to take the step this week.
In the vote's angry aftermath, rumblings of schism erupted not only in England but all across the Anglican Communion, with its 70 million members worldwide. Outside the synod hall, while women and their male supporters cheered and hugged, angry conservatives warned that thousands of members and clergymen would leave the church in protest. "I have become more and more disillusioned with the Church of England," declared Ann Widdecombe, an M.P. and junior minister in the Conservative government who quit the church after the vote. "Its doctrine is doubt, its creed is compromise, and its purpose appears to be party politics. This was just the last straw."