LONDON (Reuters) - The Church of England moved closer to the consecration of women bishops on Wednesday when it voted against giving strengthened legal protection to traditionalists who favour an all-male clergy, a decision that could lead more to switch to Rome.
The vote was the last chance for the church's parliament, or synod, to influence the draft legislation in its long legislative process before it heads to the House of Bishops for consideration in May.
If the bishops make no changes, the draft will return to synod in July for a final vote - 20 years after it voted in favour of women priests.
That women will get to wear the mitre is in little doubt. What the synod had to consider was how much extra provision traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and conservative evangelicals would get and how much more authority liberals should cede.
The consecration of women, along with homosexual bishops and same-sex marriages, is among the most divisive issues facing the
77 million members of the Anglican Church round the world.
Other Anglican provinces already have women bishops, including the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Traditionalists and evangelicals, who say they represent 1,000 of the 13,000 parishes in England and Wales, wanted to strengthen the legal position of male bishops ministering in dioceses where parishes objected to women bishops.
They backed a motion which in effect resurrected a proposal put forward by the two most senior Church of England clerics, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, in July 2010, but which was rejected by the synod at the time.
It would have provided for a so-called nominated bishop, working alongside the female bishop under a system of a co-ordinated, or shared, jurisdiction, drawing his authority from the church rather than diocesan bishop.
Traditionalists argue that as Jesus Christ's apostles were all men, there is nothing in the Bible or church history to support women bishops.
Had the synod voted for their proposal, it could have held up the legislative process by a year. As it is, traditionalists have asked the House of Bishops to "provide properly for those unable in conscience to accept the oversight of women bishops".
Liberals argued they had made enough concessions already, and any further compromise would create "second-tier" women bishops.
The synod voted in favour of the liberals' stance, that the draft legislation should go forward unchanged.
"We want to honour the efforts of all those who have gone before and allow the current measure to go forward to final approval and see what happens at that stage," the Reverend Rosemarie Mallett told synod.
The vote could see more traditionalists move over to Rome. About 60 Anglo-Catholic priests and 1,000 parishioners have already taken up an offer by Pope Benedict to convert and form an "ordinariate" within the Roman Catholic Church while keeping some of their Anglican traditions.
Nearly a third of the Church of England's working priests are female.
The synod vote is not binding and the House of Bishops can choose to accept it or ignore it.
The draft legislation will need a two-thirds majority in each house of synod - bishops, clergy and laity - before it can go before the British parliament, with the first woman bishop unlikely before 2014.
(Reporting by Avril Ormsby; editing by Andrew Roche)