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Tuesday, March 8, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Church Of England To Ordain Women -- Action Marks End Of Spiritual Struggle

AP

LONDON - When Christine Clarke is ordained as one of the Church of England's first woman priests, she will fulfill a calling she has felt for 22 years.

"It's been a long wait, but now there is a sense of everything coming together," said Clarke, 48. "There is a feeling that, for this I was born. Now we are walking right into the central structure of the church."

After years of spiritual torment and theological wrangling, women are being admitted to the priesthood for the first time since King Henry VIII created the Church of England in the 16th century.

The state church's 1,200 woman deacons and their supporters are expected to pack Bristol cathedral March 12 for the ordination of 33 women by Bishop Barry Rogerson.

The church's spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, has been a strong supporter of ordaining women, but the issue has tested the church's traditional toleration of diversity.

"It is the humanity of Christ which is important, not his maleness," Carey argued before the ordination of women was approved by the General Synod in November 1992.

In making the change, the Church of England joined 12 of the 28 self-governing provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion. There are 1,381 women serving as priests, including 1,031 in the U.S. Episcopal Church, the Anglican Consultative Council says. The Episcopal Church has ordained women since 1976, and in 1989 consecrated the first woman bishop.

Now Clarke and the others will be able to bless the bread and wine at Holy Communion, pronounce absolution and the forgiveness of sin and give blessings - priestly duties previously forbidden to them.

Clarke, a deacon in Bristol, said she has encountered little opposition to her ordination, "but I cannot forget that others in the church are hurting over this."

Jan Fortune-Wood, 32, who has three children, holds a doctorate in theology and has been a deacon for five years, has "felt called to the priesthood from childhood." She said ordination will "remove that hollow center" in her ministry: the inability to celebrate Communion.

She also reported little opposition at her parish church, St. Andrew's in Swindon, Bristol Diocese, where she is a counselor to single parents and the elderly.

Since the governing General Synod voted, 35 Anglican clergymen and several hundred lay people have quit the Church of England in protest, said church spokesman Steve Jenkins. Many joined the Roman Catholic Church, which does not permit women to be priests.

Last month, the Anglo-Catholic traditionalist group, Forward in Faith, released a statement signed by eight serving or retired bishops and 712 priests and deacons indicating they intended to forsake the church to become Roman Catholics.

"This is a matter of great sadness," said Margaret Brown, co-founder of Women Against the Ordination of Women. "We are not just a few cranks. Votes in various synods have shown at least one-third of the church opposes women's ordination."

The Rev. Malcolm Widdecombe of Bristol, a prominent dissenter, believes the church "is moving into error. . . . This is against the tradition of the church and the teaching of Scripture. Our Lord gave an honored position to women, but he chose men for the major tasks."

Widdecombe believes ordaining women will be disastrous for church membership, which already is sparse. In a country of 55 million people, about 6.7 million belong to Christian churches, according to the United Kingdom Christian Handbook. The Church of England claimed just 1.47 million, down 21 percent since 1975.

In an effort to accommodate dissenters, the General Synod put several limitations on woman priests. They may not become bishops, a parish may refuse to accept a woman as its priest, and bishops now in office cannot be compelled to ordain women or accept them as priests in their dioceses.

Also, the synod approved special severance-pay arrangements, which became effective Feb. 22, for full-time priests who decide in the next 10 years to resign rather than accept women as colleagues. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Women have major role in church

The Church of England is the mother church of the Anglican Communion, which has 70 million members worldwide.

According to the Anglican Consultative Council, there are 1,381 women priests in 12 of the 28 self-governing provinces, including the U.S. Episcopal Church, which has ordained 1,031 women.

There are two female diocesan bishops - the Rt. Rev. Mary McLeod in Vermont and the Rt. Rev. Penelope Jamieson in New Zealand. Three women have been appointed as suffragans, or deputy bishops, including two in the United States.

In 15 provinces and member churches, there are 1,941 woman deacons, about 800 of them in the United States. The Church of England has 707 full-time and about 500 part-time woman deacons, all now eligible for ordination.

AP

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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