In a momentous decision overturning centuries of tradition, the Church of England has voted by a narrow majority to allow women to be ordained to the priesthood.

The announcement, made by Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and greeted with silence by the members of the Church of England General Synod, delighted supporters of women’s ordination but dismayed traditionalist clergy who predicted chaos and schism.

Outside the Anglican headquarters at Church House in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, London, the news was greeted with jubilation by women deacons and their well-wishers, who hugged each other and sang hymns when the result came through—victory by two votes in the House of Laity.

To succeed, the measure needed a two-thirds majority in each of the synod’s three houses—bishops, clergy, and laity—and while lobbyists knew the outcome was dependent on the lay vote, no one was confident enough to forecast which side would prevail.

Archbishop Favors Measure

The archbishop of Canterbury, whose impassioned speech in favor of the legislation is thought to have influenced the undecided, said afterwards, “While for many this result is a source of joy and relief, to others it will bring anguish. But what binds us together in God’s love is vastly more important than a disagreement about women’s ordination.” He urged dissenters not to leave the church but to remain within it, joining their talents “in mission to an increasingly confused and lost world.”

Many traditionalists, however, were unconvinced. Fr. Geoffrey Kirk, secretary of the Cost of Conscience movement, representing the many clergy opposed to the legislation, said, “The Church of England will never be the same again. But the fight goes on. I’m not leaving, I’m staying … ...

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