The leader of the Church of England appealed for harmony among the faithful as it went into a vote Tuesday on whether to allow women to serve as bishops, a historic decision that comes after decades of debate.
The push to muster a two-thirds majority among lay members of the General Synod is expected to be close, with many on both sides unsatisfied with a compromise proposal to accommodate individual parishes that spurn female bishops.
In a sermon at a communion service before the debate, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, quoted Cardinal John Henry Newman's motto, "heart speaks to heart."
"That is what we are praying and we are saying for our day, not, please God, just an exchange of ideas, not just for a rival taking of positions, but somehow that, from the centre of myself and centre of yourself, something will emerge that is Christ-like in character," said Williams, who will step down at the end of December.
He was supported by Bishop Justin Welby, who becomes archbishop of Canterbury next year and promised to "faithfully" carry out concessions to opponents.
"We cannot get trapped into believing this is a zero-sum decision where one person's gain must be another's loss. That is not a theology of grace," Welby said.
"It is time to finish the job and vote for this measure but also the Church of England needs to show how we can develop the mission of the Church in a way that demonstrates that we can manage diversity of view without division.
Passage of legislation to allow women to serve as bishops must be approved by two-thirds majorities in the synod's three houses: bishops, priests and laity. Synod members were voting on the latest compromise which calls for church leaders to "respect" the position of parishes that oppose female bishops â€” without saying exactly what "respect" means.
The nod to conservative forces has drawn some supporters of women bishops into an unlikely alliance with opponents, throwing the result of the vote into doubt.
Supporters of the middle way said that the conscience of opponents needed to be taken into account.
"The trouble is our disagreement is absolute: either a woman can be a bishop, or she cannot," said Rev. Janet Appleby, a parish priest who drafted the compromise. But she added that "respect ... ensures that parishes that are unable in conscience to accept women priests and bishops will be able to receive appropriate ministerial and episcopal oversight."
Canon Simon Killwick from Manchester, opposing the compromise, argued that it was "possible to be in favour of women bishops in principle, but to believe that this was the wrong legislation for introducing women bishops."
The first critical vote is on whether to adopt the legislation as English law. A second vote would follow on whether to incorporate the change in church law.