LONDON (Reuters) - The Church of England is to vote on November 20 on whether to allow the ordination of women bishops, the culmination of more than 10 years of debate on one of the most divisive issues within the Anglican community.
Women already serve as bishops in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, but the Church of England, the mother church for the world's 80 million Anglicans, has struggled to reconcile the dispute between reformers and traditionalists on whether to allow them in England.
The vote in the Church's General Synod is expected to be close, but there is reason to believe the proposed legislation will gain the two-thirds majority it needs to pass, said William Fittall, Secretary General to the Synod.
"The expectation in the Church of England and outside the Church is this is going to go through...(but) the arithmetic is tight," Fittall said in a media briefing.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has expressed his strong backing for allowing female bishops, but has underlined the need to respect more traditional views also.
The proposed legislation makes provision for parishes which for theological reasons object to senior women clergy.
"Our challenge has been and still is to try and make it good news even for those within our fellowship who have conscientious doubts," Williams said in an essay this month.
About 50 traditionalist priests have left the Church of England, taking up an offer from Pope Benedict to switch to Rome after they became alienated by the prospect of the changes.
Each of the 44 member churches in the Anglican Communion can decide for itself whether to allow women bishops. Many Anglicans in developing countries are strongly opposed to women clergy.
The vote comes at a time when the Anglican Church is facing division over the ordination of gay bishops which has pitted liberal church leaders in the United States and Britain against more conservative figures in places such as Africa.
If the law on women bishops is passed in November it will be a triumph for supporters who have battled to see women don the mitre, the bishop's hat that signifies the authority to ordain priests, head dioceses and claim a link back to the original Twelve Apostles.
But if a two-thirds majority of the assembly does not approve the draft legislation, it will take at least another five years for a new motion on women bishops to come about, Fittall said.
Williams is stepping down as archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the year and the panel choosing his successor is under pressure to name one soon. Commentators speculate the secretive panel is split over choosing a reformer or a safe pair of hands to maintain the status quo in a post that dates back 1,400 years.
Reporting by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Jon Hemming