In a historic move, the Church of England's governing body, the General Synod, has voted to allow women to be ordained as bishops, prompting threats from traditionalists opposed to the move, to leave the Church.

There was an exodus of male clergy when women were first ordained as priests in 1994.

If there is no further hitch, the first woman bishop could be in place in 2014 but there were fears that the move could still be scuppered when the legislation — after being approved by the Church's 44 diocesan synods — returns to the synod in 2012 for a final vote.

At that stage the legislation would need a two-thirds majority to be passed. Another unforeseen factor is whether the liberal wing of the synod would continue to be in a majority after fresh elections this autumn.

Deep divisions

The vote, after nearly 12 hours of often ill-tempered debate on Monday, came amid deep divisions that saw the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams put his personal authority on the line and propose a compromise offering a parallel arrangement for those not willing to accept women bishops. Much to his embarrassment, the move was rejected, confronting him with what he described as the “desperately difficult” task of holding the Church together. While the liberals celebrated their victory with Rachel Weir of the campaign group Women and the Church hailing the vote as a “momentous” decision, the traditionalists accused the Church of marginalising them and warned of an “exodus”. One leading evangelical cleric said he would be “ashamed” to be part of a Church that did not make traditionalists feel at home.

“Not the end of the road”

Dr. Williams was said to be concerned about the depth of traditionalist anger and assured them that the vote was “not the end of the road”, describing it as still “unfinished business”. He said the Church remained “profoundly committed” to respecting the “consciences of minorities”.

“We've not yet cracked how to do that,” he said.

Moves were reported to be afoot to devise arrangements to mollify the traditionalists and avoid a split in the Church which is already embroiled in a divisive feud over gay bishops.