The Archbishop of Canterbury said Monday that the 28 regional and national churches that make up the Anglican Communion are moving toward approval of the ordination of women clergy, but that it may not happen without a fight.
"Until there is a decisive, ecumenical, Christian answer to this question, there will inevitably be the risk of broken, or at least impaired, communion between the provinces of the (Anglican) Communion, where some have advanced while others have held back," the Most Rev. Robert Runcie said in remarks prepared for delivery at a church conference later this week.
"If a thing is of God it will flourish," he said. "If not, it will eventually wither. In the meantime we have to endure the pain felt by protagonists and antagonists alike."
Runcie is head of the Church of England as well as spiritual leader of the 65-million member Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church in the United States.
At a press conference Monday, he said the ordination of women is "a particular and quite fundamental change in the character of the Episcopal ministry, which I believe is coming upon the (Anglican) church in general."
The Episcopal Church began ordaining women priests in the late 1970s, and a majority of the bishops of the Church of England voted last year to follow suit by the mid-1990s. Others objected. The issue is expected to dominate the proceedings of the upcoming Lambeth Conference in London, a meeting once every 10 years of Anglican bishops from around the world.
The issue has drawn fire from critics who believe the ordination of women will threaten efforts to reunite the Anglican Communion with the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox denominations of the Slavic countries and the Middle East.
But Runcie told a press conference that a mutual "respect for those who do (ordain women) and a respect for those who do not" has kept the peace within the Anglican camp so far.
He also said the talks among representatives of the three churches have been "remarkably constructive" despite the disagreement over women priests.
"They look upon our having ordained women to the ministry as having changed the rules of the game after the game had started, to put it very crudely and perhaps superficially," he said.
"But even in the case of the Orthodox, that hasn't, strangely enough, halted the momentum of the talks," he said, adding that representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church and several Middle Eastern Orthodox groups were now taking part.
Runcie also confirmed a report that the Church of England paid about $21,000 for travel expenses in a futile effort to learn the whereabouts of his aide, Terry Waite, who was taken hostage in Lebanon nearly a year ago.
"We believe that Terry Waite is alive and we believed that this particular approach would establish that in a knock-you-down sort of way: a letter or picture with (Waite holding) today's newspaper in it," Runcie said. "It didn't."