A leading traditionalist bishop has changed his mind on the ordination of women in a volte face that will astonish clergy and laity on both sides of the debate.
The Bishop of Horsham , whose area as a suffragan covers much of West Sussex, has decided to accept the sacramental ministry of all women and men ordained as deacon, priest and bishop "after much prayer and soul searching".
He has as a result resigned as a member of the Council of Bishops of the Society, the body set up in 2010 to promote and maintain Catholic teaching and practice within the Church of England. It also provides episcopal oversight for parishes that do not wish to accept the ministry of a woman priest or bishop.
Bishop Sowerby's change of mind came after a period of "strenuous theological reflection".
In a letter to the Bishop of Wakefield, chair of the Society's council, he said: "It is only after a deal of soul-searching and with a measure of personal pain, that I am writing to tender my resignation as a member of The Society's Council of Bishops."
Bishop of Chichester Dr Martin Warner said: "Bishop Mark's shift in theological outlook on the ordination of women priests and bishops is a costly one. All who know and respect him will understand the serious struggle with conscience that will have led to his decision. We respect his honesty and applaud his courage. For some of those he serves it will be a development that they cannot follow, and that will be painful. For others, this news will be greeted with relief and considerable rejoicing."
Bishop Mark will continue in his ministry at Horsham. Traditionalists who have looked to him for sacramental ministry will now seek the pastoral care and oversight of the diocesan bishop. He will not now lay hands on episcopal candidates from the Catholic wing at future consecrations in the Chichester diocese, for many decades a heartland of opposition to women's ordination.
Dr Warner said: "Within the household of faith, we are committed to the trust and respect for theological conscience that undergirds the Five Guiding Principles of the House of Bishops' Declaration. We seek the greatest degree of communion possible in our apostolic life of faith, of hope and of love. We ask for God's continued blessing on Bishop Mark in proclaiming and nurturing the call to know, love, follow Jesus."
Bishop of Wakefield Tony Robinson said: "It is with great regret that I have received the Bishop of Horsham's resignation from the Council of Bishops of the Society. I acknowledge the pain he feels in taking this step, and his regret at the pain it will cause for others. Part of the Society's purpose is to continue within the Church of England a tradition of sacramental theology and ministry that accords with the mind and practice of the great churches of East and West.
"We see this as our contribution both to the breadth and diversity of the Church of England and to the quest for the full visible unity of Christ's Church. As a member of the council of bishops, the Bishop of Chichester will continue to provide pastoral and sacramental ministry and oversight under the House of Bishops' declaration to the clergy and people of the Society in his diocese. We send Bishop Mark our good wishes for his future ministry."