The election of the first woman bishop in the 450-year history of the Anglican Communion last weekend will severely test the unity of the 70-million-member worldwide body, as well as hinder reconciliation talks between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, according to church leaders.
While Robert Runcie, the archbishop of Canterbury, urged the Church of England to respect the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts' choice of the Rev. Barbara C. Harris of Philadelphia as a suffragan, or associate, bishop, the Church of England's third-ranking cleric led the opposition and said he will not recognize her authority.
The Right Rev. Graham Leonard, the bishop of London, said electing a woman bishop was "secular in origin and thought" and will deeply divide the church.
Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, leader of the U.S. Episcopal Church, conceded that Harris' election marks "a troubling time" for many church members that "will test commitment to the unity of the church, but more especially our sensitivity and the feelings and convictions of others."
Harris, 58, a black civil rights leader who has been an Episcopal priest for eight years, was elected on the eighth ballot at a convention of the 110,000-member diocese in Boston on Saturday. Harris' election must still be confirmed by a majority of the 2.5-million-member church's diocesan bishops across the nation and by the standing committees of its 120 dioceses.
A suffragan bishop is an assisting bishop who may serve in the post for a lifetime or may be subsequently elected to head a diocese.
The lineage of bishops is traced to the time of the apostles in the Anglican Communion, the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy. Opponents of female bishops say that because the original 12 apostles chosen by Jesus were all men, the office is not open to women.
Opponents also contend that sacramental acts performed by an ordained woman, such as ordaining men as priests, are invalid.
"In common with many other bishops, I would be unable to recognize a woman bishop or the validity of any ordinations or confirmations performed by her," Leonard, the leading opponent of women's ordination in Britain, said in a statement.
Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop Frederic H. Borsch was greeted with warm applause when he spoke to the largely black St. John's parish in Los Angeles on Sunday and said Harris' selection "enlarges my own episcopal office."
In a written statement, Borsch added: "At the least she (Harris) is highly qualified to be a bishop, a representative of the witness of the apostles. For a time some may find it difficult to see in her a personal side of continuity and unity in the life of the church, but I believe that the spirit of God is giving a new gift for the understanding of the unity of all Christians and the future of the faith."
For months, church leaders had been carefully orchestrating preparations for the expected selection of a woman bishop within the Anglican Communion--as well as steps to smooth the inevitable opposition following it.
The Lambeth Conference, the worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops that convenes every 10 years, at a meeting in Canterbury, England, in July and August, overwhelmingly upheld the right of the 28 autonomous church bodies within the communion to decide on their own whether to have female bishops. Differing factions were encouraged to respect each others' positions.
Delegates to the Episcopal Church's General Convention in Detroit last summer approved a plan that allows local churches to receive "ministrations" from special "episcopal visitors" in cases where they differ with their bishops on the question of female bishops.
The Episcopal Church, the major Anglican body in the United States, has been ordaining women as priests since 1976. Since then, almost 1,000 female priests and more than 400 female deacons have been ordained.
Only five other churches within the Anglican Communion have formally approved the concept of female priests: the Episcopal Church of Brazil, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Church of the Province of New Zealand, the Diocese of Hong Kong and some dioceses of Kenya.
Runcie, in a statement issued in Canterbury since Harris' election, urged all bishops of the Anglican Communion "to maintain the highest possible degree of unity with those who differ." Anticipating the selection of a female bishop, Runcie last month established a committee to ward off splits.
The chief ecumenical spokesman of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy said Harris' election "will increase our difficulties in an unlimited way." The Roman Catholic Church forbids the ordination of women.
In a statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop J. Francis Stafford of Denver said the presence of Anglican female bishops will be "a hindrance to (the) process of reconciliation, one we want to see go forward" between the two faiths.