The Anglican Communion's Panel of Reference expressed support to a conservative diocese that opposes women ordination but has in place implemented a plan to provide women access to the ordination process.
"This is great news for the people of a faithful diocese, and, by extension, all others in the Anglican Communion Network and the Episcopal Church who share their convictions as well as for those of us who support them," Bishop Robert Duncan, moderator of the Anglican Communion Network, comprised of conservative North American parishes, said Monday. "Of course, only time will tell what action results from this very positive development."
The Diocese of Forth Worth had expressed concern that the canonical changes in 1997 that makes women's ordination mandatory would make it "impossible" for the diocese to receive the necessary consent from the majority of Episcopal dioceses for the election of any bishop who disapproves the ordination of women to the presbyterate or episcopate.
The diocese is one of three Episcopal dioceses that do not ordain women to the priesthood.
Although the Anglican Communion as a whole is committed to "open reception" of women's ordination, no diocese is compelled to receive ministry from an ordained woman if they are in theological disagreement with the practice. But a news release by the Anglican Communion Network stated that in recent years, the Episcopal Church "appeared to force acceptance of women's ordination through canonical changes and, most recently, through the election of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori."
It further stated that Forth Worth made the appeal before the election and consecration of Jefferts Schori. After the investiture, the diocese requested for oversight from an Anglican Communion primate other than Jefferts Schori.
Despite its disapproval of women ordination, the Diocese of Forth Worth put in place the Dallas Plan, allowing women from the diocese access to the ordination process through the Diocese of Dallas. Fort Worth's Bishop Jack Iker has also reportedly offered to designate the bishop of Dallas as an alternate Episcopal authority with full oversight for any parish that desires to ordain women.
Iker noted that 25 percent of Episcopalians in his diocese disagree with his stance.
In response to Fort Worth's appeal, the Panel of Reference, which was appointed in May 2005 to report and make recommendations to the Archbishop of Canterbury, commended the system of care. And it recommended that the Episcopal Church clarify the 1997 amendment "so as to ensure that the permissive nature of the ordination of women is maintained in any diocese," according to the Episcopal News Service.
“It is clearly up to the leadership of The Episcopal Church to choose either to continue pushing faithful Episcopalians who disagree with the majority on this issue out the door, or to accept the constructive work of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Panel of Reference," Duncan stated. The Panel of Reference further recommended that "the Archbishop of Canterbury continue discussions with the Diocese of Forth Worth and with the Episcopal Church with the aim of securing the place of Fort Worth in the Communion."
"We are gratified that our conscientious position has been vindicated by this impartial, international body of church leaders," Iker said in a statement.
While some Anglican leaders disapprove of the ordination of women, opposition to gay clergy has overshadowed the issue.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams admitted to fearing losing control of the Anglican church wracked by the divide over homosexuality.
"I fear schism, not because I think it's the worst thing in the world but because, at this particular juncture, it is going to be bad for us. It's going to drive people into recrimination and bitterness," Williams said, according to Reuters.
Anglican heads of 38 provinces around the globe are scheduled to convene in a biennial Primates meeting next month in Tanzania, where both the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and a representative of the conservative Anglican groups in the United States are expected at the Primates table.