Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said last week that he was confident the General Synod would approve women bishopsGetty

The Church of England's General Synod has voted in favour of women bishops, bringing an end to one of the Church's longest-running controversies.

At a gathering at York University, the governing body made the decision in what has been billed as its most important meeting in two decades.

The Church of England's governing body opened its debate on female bishops with a succession of former opponents announcing that they would accept the legislation even if they disagreed with it.

Formal moves towards the ordination of women began forty years ago and the Church of England decided that women could be priests over two decades ago.

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury said he was hopeful that the General Synod would approve women bishops when it voted on the issue.

Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans, said the general public would find it "almost incomprehensible" that the General Synod should fail to support the move.

"Theologically, the church has been wrong not to ordain women as priests and bishops over the centuries," Welby told the BBC's Andrew Marr show. "The votes I think are there ... I'm hopeful it will pass."

According to Reuters, local media reported that Welby may push through the legislation even if it is rejected by the General Synod. However, when asked if he could ignore the body and impose female bishops on the church anyway, Welby said "absolutely not".

Supporters of the reform are keen to project a more modern and egalitarian image of the Church as it battles dwindling congregations in many increasingly secular countries.

There are a minority of conservatives who oppose women bishops' ministry and see the change as contradicting the Bible.

Earlier in the week it was reported that a leading opponent said he believed the General Synod would approve the move, although he added he would vote against the measure.

Canon Simon Killwick, chair of the synod's Catholic group, which opposes female bishops, said: "I think it will go through. I'd put good money on it. There is a much greater sense of trust and mutual respect and goodwill than there was the last time the synod voted."

Previous draft legislation on women bishops was narrowly rejected by the Synod in 2012, to the dismay of both church leaders and politicians.

The issue of female clergy has divided Anglicanism globally. Women serve as bishops in the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand but Anglican churches in many developing countries do not even ordain them as priests.

There are 7,798 full-time Church of England priests, of which 1,781 are women. It has been 20 years since the first Church of England women priests were ordained and there are 28 Anglican women bishops worldwide.

The Church approved the ordination of women priests in 1992, but delayed making them bishops because of opposition within its previously all-male clergy.

A committee was set up to find common ground after the draft legislation was rejected in 2012.

It proposals included creating an independent official who can intervene when traditionalist parishes complain about women bishops' authority, as well as guidelines for parishes whose congregations reject women's ministry.

Women bishops
Church of England body says yes to female bishops