More than 1,300 clergy, including 11 serving bishops, have written to the archbishops of Canterbury and York to say that they will defect from the Church of England if women are consecrated bishops.
As the wider Anglican Communion fragments over homosexuality, Englandâ€™s established Church is moving towards its own crisis with a crucial vote on women bishops this weekend.
In a letter to Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, seen by The Times, the signatories give warning that they will consider leaving the Church if two crucial votes are passed to introduce female bishops.
The Churchâ€™s moderate centre is being pressured as never before by evangelicals opposed to gays, and traditionalists opposed to womenâ€™s ordination. The crisis is unprecedented since the Reformation devastated the Roman Catholic Church in England in the 16th century.
The General Synod, the Churchâ€™s governing body, meets in York on Friday, when clergy will decide whether legislation to consecrate women should be introduced, and whether it should have legal safeguards for traditionalists or a simple voluntary code to protect them.
The letterâ€™s signatories â€“ who represent 10 per cent of practising clergy and hundreds of retired priests â€“ will accept women bishops only if they have a legal right to separate havens within the Church. These would offer opponents of women bishops a network of parishes where they could worship under the leadership of exclusively male clergy and bishops.
The archbishops of Canterbury and York are keen to see women bishops as soon as possible but liberals who support the move have raised the stakes by saying they will not back the change if legal conditions are attached. They fear that such safeguards would enshrine discrimination by creating a â€œchurch within a churchâ€.
The signatories are largely from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church and many will attempt to seek a ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is short of priests and is expected to welcome them again, even if they are married with families, as it did when the Church of England ordained women priests.
The protest over women bishops came as Dr Williams tried to assert his authority on the wider Anglican communion with a strong rebuke to evangelicals who promised last week to form a breakaway Anglican church after a summit in Jerusalem. He described their move as â€œproblematicâ€ and urged those involved to â€œthink very carefully about the risksâ€. He also made clear his view that the doctrinally strict evangelical wing was not itself free from sin. â€œOn all sides of our controversies, slogans, misrepresentations and caricatures abound, and they need to be challenged,â€ he said.
Of the 1,333 clergy who signed the protest letter, 60 per cent are serving clergy. Among the retired bishops is the former Bishop of Chichester, the Right Rev Eric Kemp. Some women deacons have also joined the protest.
The traditionalists write: â€œWe will inevitably be asking whether we can, in conscience, continue to minister as bishops, priests and deacons in the Church of England . . . We do not write this in a spirit of making threats or throwing down gauntlets. Rather, we believe that the time has come to make our concerns plain, so that the possible consequences of a failure to make provision which allows us to flourish and to grow are clear.â€
At the same time 1,276 women clergy, 1,012 male clergy and 1,916 lay church members who support women bishops signed a statement objecting to the prospect of â€œdiscriminatoryâ€ legislation to safeguard opponents.