The Church of England will today take the historic step of voting on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first female bishops.

The General Synod, the Church's national assembly, will take a series of votes after a debate on whether to allow the legislation to clear its final hurdle before going to Parliament for approval.

The vote is billed as the most significant step in 20 years taken by the General Synod, a 470-strong body made up of bishops, clergy and laity, since it first backed the introduction of women priests.

If given approval later today, the legislation will go to the Houses of Parliament before receiving Royal Assent, paving the way for the first women bishops in 2014.

A vote in favour of approval would usher in not only women bishops but the prospect of future female Archbishops of Canterbury or York, the two most senior posts in the Church of England.

But the legislation needs a two-thirds majority in all three houses of the General Synod - bishops, clergy and laity - in order to gain final approval.

sally hitchiner

Reverend Sally Hitchiner crosses her fingers outside Church House during a lunch break today.

Commentators have said they believe the legislation will clear the houses of bishops and clergy with the necessary majority but the vote amongst lay members of the General Synod is thought to be close.

The first vote will be on whether to give final approval to the legislation with a second vote taken on a draft amending canon, a legal mechanism that will enable the legislation to become law.

A third vote will be taken on whether to back a petition for Royal Assent.

The vote comes after years of torturous negotiations on how best to introduce women bishops within the Church of England amid opposition from traditionalists including some Anglo-Catholics and conservative evangelicals.

Under the legislation, a woman bishop would delegate to a stand-in male bishop to minister to parishes which rejected her authority, using a code of practice for guidance.

The legislation has been backed by 42 out of the 44 Church of England dioceses.

But traditionalists have attacked the arrangements in the legislation as inadequate, while some pro-women campaigners have complained that the concessions have been too generous to objectors.

Currently 944 out of 12,792 parishes in the Church of England refuse to have a woman vicar.

A defeat for the legislation would be seen as a serious blow to Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, who has staked his authority on a Yes vote in a campaign launched last month.

Dr Williams has warned that a failure to approve women bishops could be embarrassing for the Church and lead to "a period of continued and perhaps intensified internal conflict".

The incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Rev Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, has also urged the General Synod to vote for the legislation, saying that he is "deeply committed" to the ordination of women to the episcopate.

Yesterday members of the General Synod were asked to show "grace" to one another whatever the outcome of the debate and the vote.

The Ven Julian Henderson, Archdeacon of Dorking, said there would be "anxiety and emotion" as the General Synod debates and votes on the issue.

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  • BRITAIN-RELIGION-ANGLICAN-WOMEN-VOTE

    Marie-Elsa Bragg, Assistant Curate, embraces a collegue after the Church of England's draft legislation approving women bishops failed to pass during the England General Synod at Church House in central London on November 20, 2012. The legislation needed a two-thirds majority among the three houses of bishops, clergy and laity, but failed by just six voters among the laity. AFP PHOTO/BEN STANSALL (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL,BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

  • BRITAIN-RELIGION-ANGLICAN-WOMEN-VOTE

    Marie-Elsa Bragg embraces a collegue after the Church of England's draft legislation approving women bishops failed to pass during the England General Synod at Church House in central London on November 20, 2012. The legislation needed a two-thirds majority among the three houses of bishops, clergy and laity, but failed by just six voters among the laity. AFP PHOTO/BEN STANSALL (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL,BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

  • BRITAIN-RELIGION-ANGLICAN-WOMEN-VOTE

    The Bishop of Norwich Graham James speaks to the media after the Church of England's draft legislation approving women bishops failed to pass during the England General Synod at Church House in central London on November 20, 2012. The legislation needed a two-thirds majority among the three houses of bishops, clergy and laity, but failed by just six voters among the laity. AFP PHOTO/BEN STANSALL (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL,BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

  • BRITAIN-RELIGION-ANGLICAN-WOMEN-VOTE

    Female members of the clergy leave after the Church of England's draft legislation approving women bishops failed to pass during the England General Synod at Church House in central London on November 20, 2012. The legislation needed a two-thirds majority among the three houses of bishops, clergy and laity, but failed by just six voters among the laity. AFP PHOTO/BEN STANSALL (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL,BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, after draft legislation introducing the first women bishops in the Church of England failed to receive final approval from the Church of England General Synod, at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Rt Rev Justin Welby, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury (top) with Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury (back to camera), after draft legislation introducing the first women bishops in the Church of England failed to receive final approval from the Church of England General Synod, at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Rt Rev Justin Welby, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury (background) looks on as Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury is given a hug, after draft legislation introducing the first women bishops in the Church of England failed to receive final approval from the Church of England General Synod, at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams (back to camera), the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, provides a shoulder of comfort after draft legislation introducing the first women bishops in the Church of England failed to receive final approval from the Church of England General Synod, at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, after draft legislation introducing the first women bishops in the Church of England failed to receive final approval from the Church of England General Synod, at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury (left) listens to a speech by the Right Reverend Nigel McCulloch, Bishop of Manchester, during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    A general view of the Assembly Hall of Church House, during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    The Venerable Rachel Treweek, Archdeacon of Hackney speaking during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    The Venerable Rachel Treweek, Archdeacon of Hackney speaking during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    The Reverend Janet Appleby speaking during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Canon Rosie Harper speaking during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Rt Rev Justin Welby, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury speaking during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury (left) listens to a speech by the Right Reverend Nigel McCulloch, Bishop of Manchester, during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Rt Rev Justin Welby (centre), the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury after speaking during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Rt Rev Justin Welby, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury speaking during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Rt Rev Justin Welby (centre), the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury after speaking during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, after speaking during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - at Church House in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    A general view of the Assembly Hall of Church House, during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    A 'No Entry' sign in the Assembly Hall of Church House, during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    A general view of the Assembly Hall of Church House, during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    A general view of the Assembly Hall of Church House, during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - in central London.

  • The Church of England's Synod Vote On Women Bishops

    LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20: Visitors enter Church House for the afternoon session of the Synod on November 20, 2012 in London, England. The Church of England's governing body, known as the General Synod, will later today vote on whether to allow women to become bishops. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

  • Vote on female bishops

    A general view of the voting handset which will be used during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    PLEASE NOTE THE PERSON'S NAME ON SMARTCARD PIXELATED BY REQUEST OF THE CHURCH AUTHORITIES : A general view of the voting handset which will be used during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - in central London.

  • Vote on female bishops

    PLEASE NOTE THE PERSON'S NAME ON SMARTCARD PIXELATED BY REQUEST OF THE CHURCH AUTHORITIES : A general view of the voting handset which will be used during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England - where a vote on whether to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops will take place - in central London.

  • The Church of England's Synod Vote On Women Bishops

    LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20: Reverend Sally Hitchiner crosses her fingers outside Church House during a lunch break on November 20, 2012 in London, England. The Church of England's governing body, known as the General Synod, will later today vote on whether to allow women to become bishops. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

  • The Church of England's Synod Vote On Women Bishops

    LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20: Reverend Sally Hitchiner stands outside Church House during a lunch break on November 20, 2012 in London, England. The Church of England's governing body, known as the General Synod, will later today vote on whether to allow women to become bishops. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

  • The Church of England's Synod Vote On Women Bishops

    LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20: Reverends (L-R) Jody Stowell, Nicola Shephard and Sally Hitchiner talk with Peter Broadbent, The Bishop of Willesden outside Church House during a lunch break on November 20, 2012 in London, England. The Church of England's governing body, known as the General Synod, will later today vote on whether to allow women to become bishops. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

  • The Church of England's Synod Vote On Women Bishops

    LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20: Reverend Sally Hitchiner stands outside Church House during a lunch break on November 20, 2012 in London, England. The Church of England's governing body, known as the General Synod, will later today vote on whether to allow women to become bishops. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)