LONDON -- Thirty-two women knelt last night in Bristol Cathedral for the laying-on of hands by the bishop and became the first women ordained as priests in the Church of England's 460 years.
"Is it your will that they should be ordained priests?" the Rt. Rev. Barry Rogerson, Bishop of Bristol, asked the congregation.
The reply was loud and emphatic: "It is!"
The first to be ordained was the Rev. Angela Berners-Wilson, the senior Anglican chaplain at the University of Bristol. The women ranged in age from 30 to nearly 70.
The 32 women hugged each other as Bishop Rogerson presented them to an applauding congregation. Then they fanned out to greet their supporters.
Most of the church's clergy and laity welcome or at least accept the ordination of women, which 12 Anglican provinces, including the U.S. Episcopal Church, have already done.
But a minority remains resolutely and vocally opposed. Some 700 clergy members, some of them retired, have indicated an intention to convert to Roman Catholicism. So far, 35 priests have resigned and 115 have indicated they will do so by next January. There are 10,200 priests in the Church of England.
The ordination of women, which seemed inevitable since it was found to be theologically unobjectionable by the General Synod of the Anglican Church in 1975, has prompted a bitter debate for almost 20 years.
The two decades are sometimes said to be the most divisive period in the church since Henry VIII established it, severing the nation's ties to the Church of Rome over Pope Clement VII's refusal to annul his marriage to Katharine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. There are signs that the split has not ended.
The 32 female deacons gathered in the historic cathedral in white robes yesterday and arranged themselves in a rectangle around Bishop Rogerson. They answered the questions to test their faith, and then the congregation followed the bishop in silent prayer for them.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Dr. George Carey and Dr. John Habgood, both of whom favor ordaining women, said that yesterday's service was "a new beginning" that "marks the culmination of almost 20 years of formal debate and many more years of prayer and reflection."
The decision to allow ordination of women was not "undertaken lightly or hastily," they said in a joint statement, and although most believed the ordinations to be God's will, "others, of course, believe the move to be mistaken." They urged church members to show "generosity, tolerance, courtesy, and loving patience with each other."
The Vatican reacted sharply to the ordinations, even though they came as no surprise, reasserting its opposition to priesthood for women and saying that the Church of England's decision was a setback for eventual reunion.
In a statement issued only hours before the ceremony in Bristol, the chief Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said Pope John Paul II "had clearly and publicly affirmed that the ordination of women also constitutes a profound obstacle to every hope of reunion between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion."
Talks on a possible reunion began shortly after the Second Vatican Council.
But these considerations did not seem to mar the occasion for the 32 women who became priests, many of whom struggled for a decade or more for the right to participate in certain rites of the church, and, beginning today, will be allowed to officiate at the Eucharist.
The Rev. Jane Hayward, looking ahead to today's services, said she was very excited but very nervous.
"I'm too concerned with getting the service right," she said. "As we are the first, people will watch closely, and those who are a bit against us will say, 'Ah, she's got it wrong, she can't do it.' "
The Church of England has attempted to accommodate die-hard "traditionalists" by establishing provisions for a diocese or a parish where female priests would not be allowed to minister. In the case of a diocese, it may be done by declaration of the bishop and in the case of a parish by a vote of the parochial church council. No such areas have been set up yet.
The ordination of women has become common throughout the Anglican Church in other countries since the first woman, Florence Li Tim Oi, was ordained in the Portuguese colony of Macao in 1944, a time when there was a shortage of male candidates because of the war.
There are about 1,380 female priests in churches within the Anglican Communion around the world.
But opposition in the home church of international Anglicanism was fierce, with opponents arguing that Jesus would not have chosen all male apostles if he had wanted female priests. One priest in the Lincoln diocese compared female priests to witches and dogs. Another from Humberside came to Bristol yesterday and placed an ad on a billboard reading "The Church of England murdered today."