Michael Brown: No room for compromise in the Anglicans' divided flock

THE Church of England was born in compromise. Or so it says in the preface to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Its ability to compromise is its "wisdom", say the preface's compilers.

But where is that wisdom now? Has it fled through the stained glass windows?

It emerged this weekend that the Church of England's traditionalist clergy and lay people have been snubbed after a compromise – that word again – deal over women bishops was jettisoned.

Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals had hoped and earnestly prayed that the Church would agree to appoint male bishops to oversee them. But it has now become sadly, possibly even tragically, clear that a body looking at the females in mitres proposals – the Revision Committee of the General Synod, the Church's parliament – has failed to back the idea.

The rejection will certainly cause an unholy mighty row and almost certainly lead to the exodus of clergy – possibly as many as 500 – who have long warned that they will depart unless they are given safeguards to protect their belief that a woman can no more be a bishop, or a priest for that matter, than she can father a child.

The snubbed traditionalists are already muttering oaths. What the committee has done is "a great piece of wickedness", says David Holding, a priest-member of the Archbishops' Council, the CoE's cabinet, and a one-time leader of the General Synod's Catholic group.

Father Holding thundered: "The committee knew what was needed and have refused to provide something that will hold the Church together." For good measure, he added: "We didn't want to go to Rome, but now we have been left with no choice."

The reference to Rome means, of course, the dissatisfied Anglicans converting to Roman Catholicism. And crossing the Tiber has doubtless been made all the more attractive for at least some traditionalist Anglicans by Pope Benedict's offer to receive them under an arrangement, announced last month, that would allow them to retain certain aspects of their Anglicanism.

Quite what aspects could be kept has not yet been made clear, but it seems that those Anglican bishops also "poping" would be able to exercise pastoral and sacramental ministry within the Roman fold with "full jurisdictional authority" – after being ordained Catholic priests, of course.

Some Anglicans will certainly be drawn to the Pope's offer. Others, however, will see it as impudent poaching on the Pontiff's part.

And there could even be civil war among the traditionalists between those staying with Canterbury and those going to Rome. This has been astutely pointed out by "flying bishop" Martyn Jarrett, Bishop of Beverley, one of a trio of provincial episcopal visitors who minister

to parishes which have already put the shutters up against women priests.

Back to women bishops. The revision committee came up with a blueprint to appoint special male bishops – possibly the likes of Martyn Jarrett –to look after the traditional parishes.

But the compromise – that word again – was greeted with naked fury by many Anglicans. It would mean that women bishops would not have complete control over their entire dioceses, they said.

The committee has since been unable to agree on any compromise at all and will instead recommend to the Synod that the Church should proceed with woman bishops on the same terms as their male counterparts.

Although individual bishops could still make provision for the traditionalists, there would be no guarantee that their wishes would be catered for. There would certainly be no statutory protection. This is what is now causing the rumpus, sparking talk of "a great piece of wickedness" and heightening gloomy prediction about the Church of England being torn apart.

Anglicans who want to see women bishops, probably the great majority, are elated by the latest developments. Take Christina Rees. She heads Women and the Church, a body that has long campaigned for women's ordination. "This is wonderful news. It's a major breakthrough as it expresses the view that men and women are equal in the sight of God," she says.

There's no rejoicing at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Thames-side pad. Rowan Williams knows that the committee's snub could shatter his hopes of preserving the unity of the Church.

He and his brother primate, John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, will no doubt try in public to put the best face on it all and talk about there still being some way to go before a final decision is made.

This is true. The failure to compromise will duly be reported to next February's Synod. And next summer there will be elections for a new Synod. It's that forum that will make the final decision on women bishops, possibly in 2011.

But in private, the Archbishops' talk will, one suspects, be gloomy. They might even echo, in sad agreement, the woeful words of Thomas Arnold, the 19th century educationalist and headmaster of Rugby: "The Church, as it now stands, no human power can save."

Michael Brown is the Yorkshire Post's religious affairs correspondent.