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LONDON (Reuters) - The Archbishop of Canterbury said he was hopeful that the Church of England's governing body would approve women bishops when it votes on the issue this week.
Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans, said the general public would find it "almost incomprehensible" should the General Synod fail to support the move on Monday.
The long-running debate pits reformers, keen to project a more modern and egalitarian image of the church as it struggles with falling congregations in many increasingly secular countries, against a minority of conservatives who see the change as contradicting the Bible.
Previous draft legislation on women bishops was narrowly rejected by the Synod in 2012, to the dismay of both church leaders and politicians.
"Theologically, the church has been wrong not to ordain women as priests and bishops over the centuries," Welby told the BBC's Andrew Marr show in an interview broadcast on Sunday.
"The votes I think are there ... I'm hopeful it will pass," he said, adding that he believed the first female bishop could be named early next year.
Local media have said Welby is planning to push through the legislation even if it is rejected by the General Synod.
But, asked if he could ignore the Synod and impose women bishops on the church anyway, Welby said: "Absolutely not."
"What happens if we lose the vote is a matter for the House of Bishops," he said, referring to one of three parts of the General Synod. "I can't dictate it."
The issue of female clergy has divided Anglicanism globally. Women serve as bishops in the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand but Anglican churches in many developing countries do not even ordain them as priests.
The Church approved the ordination of women priests in 1992, but delayed making them bishops because of opposition within its previously all-male clergy.
After the draft legislation was rejected in 2012, the church set up a committee to find common ground.
Its proposals, which would create an independent official who can intervene when traditionalist parishes complain about women bishops' authority, as well as guidelines for parishes whose congregations reject women's ministry, won widespread acceptance in the Synod in November last year.
"We've gone from a rule-based approach to a principles-based approach, which says that we accept there's difference," Welby said.
"Women will be bishops like all other bishops with no distinction at all, but we will seek for the groups who disagree with the ordination of women as bishops on theological grounds to continue to flourish within the church."
Editing by Susan Fenton