The Anglican Church in Australia is probably only a matter of months away from appointing its first woman bishop. As a result, there’s some desperate scrabbling going on behind the scenes to ensure that this inevitability won’t widen the already substantial divisions in the church over the issue.

It is a toss of the coin as to whether the Diocese of Melbourne or the Diocese of Perth will be the first to get in touch with their feminine side. The Archbishops of Melbourne (Philip Freier) and Perth (Roger Herft) strongly support appointing women as bishops and have the approval of their dioceses to do so.

But five dioceses in the Australian church not only oppose women bishops, they don’t even have women priests. Sydney, by far the largest and fastest growing, is among them.

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In order to prevent the historic appointment of women bishops from causing even more division, this week’s national bishops conference is addressing ways to provide what is quaintly termed “alternate Episcopal oversight” for dioceses and parishes opposed to women bishops.

The plan is to have a retired male bishop, or one from an adjoining diocese, stand in for confirmations and similar services conducted by a bishop in parishes which won’t accept a woman bishop even though their diocese has appointed one. Not only are there five dioceses implacably opposed to women priests and bishops, in virtually every diocese that will accept a woman bishop, there are parishes that won’t.

In order to prevent parishes breaking away – as has occurred in the United States – the hierarchy hopes that offering a male bishop alternative for some parishes will provide an escape valve.

But it won’t stop relations between the majority of liberal bishops and dioceses and the minority of conservative bishops and dioceses being put under even more pressure.

The conservative wing, led by Sydney’s Archbishop Peter Jensen, does not plan to force a formal break-away from the Anglican Church of Australia, as is occurring in Canada and the USA. And it certainly would not do so over women priests or bishops.

But if the church generally adopts more liberal policies on gay marriages, and openly gay bishops and clergy, that will be a different matter entirely. If that happens, “alternate Episcopal oversight” will become totally irrelevant.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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