The bishops of the Church of England are reported to have decided that now is not the time to press for the appointment of women bishops. Such wise caution is not shared by their opposite numbers in Australia. The 1995 General Synod passed a resolution proposed by Bishop Richard Appleby requesting both the Canon Law Commission and the Doctrine Commission to examine the issue. A few months later, unable to wait until the national church bodies discussed the question, the Melbourne synod went ahead and set up its own commission.

There are a number of reasons why the Australian church should be just as cautious as the Church of England in handling this a particular hot potato. A good deal of opposition in this country to the ordination of women comes from evangelicals who take very seriously the New Testament teaching on headship. Some evangelicals who largely follow the headship principle have nonetheless been able to accept the ordination of women priests either on the understanding that they should never be licensed as rectors, or in the belief that if they are so licensed the headship principle is still not infringed because the chief pastor of the parish remains the bishop.

To ordain women as bishops clearly breaches the traditional evangelical understanding of headship and even Sydney moderates would be unable to accept such a development. It is a minor miracle that the Anglican Church of Australia has been able to stay united up to now. The introduction of women bishops could well be the final blow.

This is ironic since bishops are meant to be first and foremost a focus for unity in the church. In her study Authority in the Church: A Challenge for Anglicans, Dr Gillian Evans makes the point that the bishop’s role is to preserve the unity of the church at three levels. He serves as a focus of unity within the diocese, between the diocese and the wider church, and he symbolises continuity in time because of his place in the apostolic succession.

Even if we put on one side the question of how women bishops could fulfil the third of these functions, Dr Evans sees problems with the other two. The truth is that there simply is not a sufficient consensus in the church for women to carry out the bishop’s task with any credibility. In the Australian church, where dioceses enjoy and enormous degree of autonomy, the situation of traditionalists in those jurisdictions electing a woman bishop would be desperate indeed. If the example of Washington DC is any guide, we would see real persecution and it would be very difficult for the national church to do anything about it.

Although it is far from easy for those who are unconvinced by the arguments for the ordination of women to remain in a church with women priests, it will become much more difficult when the church is led by women bishops. At the present time the issue can be contained. Women priests can be easily spotted and those who doubt their validity can avoid their sacramental ministry in as tactful a way as possible. What happens to traditionalists when the entire ministry comes through the female line?

Inevitably the ordination of women to the episcopate will be pushed as yet another justice issue. But if the claims of justice are to be invoked, it is important that consideration be given as to how they should apply to traditionalists left stranded in a diocese with a woman bishop. Priests in this situation surely ought to be offered some kind of financial package to allow them and their families to resign with dignity. No such arrangements were put in place when the Australian Church voted for the ordination of women priests.

Religions are conservative forces. The most successful change and adapt, but do so at a careful pace. Above all they need to read the signs of the times correctly in order to identify those developments that really do call for a response. In Australia there are indications that the church is failing to do just this. As the country becomes multi-cultural, Anglicans seem unable to appeal to a wider ethnic mix. The result is a rapid fall in numbers. In 1960, 30% of the people of Melbourne identified themselves as Anglican; by 1995 this had dropped to 15%. The total number of Anglicans has fallen in the same period in Melbourne from 750,000 to 507,000.

By contrast, although there has been some decline, the proportion of Anglicans in Sydney is still about 28%. It must be admitted that the church in Sydney has probably been helped by a bigger proportion of immigrants from the UK than has been the case in Melbourne but the fact remains that the Diocese has also been ready to spend millions in supporting multi-cultural ministries. As a result it has a large number of congregations made up of people who do not trace their roots to the UK.

The Anglican Church in Australia is at a cross-road. Will it continue to be a major player on the religious scene appealing to a wide cross-section of people, or will it become, like the Episcopal Church in the US, a middle-class “niche” church for those of a liberal turn of mind whose origins lie in the British Isles and who enjoy debating such questions as women bishops or homosexuality? That, I suspect, is the really significant issue facing us today.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangaratta, in the Province of Victoria.