The Church of England may have to split in two if women become bishops, one with female clergy and one without, an official report has concluded.
An enclave for opponents of women priests could be created to avert a mass exodus when women are consecrated, possibly within five years.
The faction, effectively a church within a church, could have its own archbishop, bishops, parish clergy and training colleges. But it would exclude women clerics.
Proposals for a traditionalist “third province” have been floated before but this is the first time they have received official recognition.
They are included in a draft report on women bishops by a working party headed by the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir Ali. The report is due to be considered by the House of Bishops this month and could be debated by the General Synod this year.
The proposals for a third province are certain to provoke a fresh bout of infighting in the Church, which is already reeling from the civil war over homosexuality.
Although they are only one of a handful of options suggested in the draft report, they will horrify many in the Church, who will regard them as far too extreme.
Liberal supporters of women bishops will denounce them as officially sanctioned schism, especially as they threaten a new set of divisions in an institution already riven by dissension.
A recent survey suggested that, 10 years after the Church first ordained women priests, up to a quarter of the clergy remains implacably opposed to women becoming bishops.
Moreover, a number of senior bishops is still resistant and the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, has said that he would resign if women were consecrated while he is in office.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has privately made clear that he is sympathetic to the idea of a third province.
The draft report, which has taken three years to complete, outlines a series of strategies that the Church could adopt if, as seems certain, it goes ahead with women bishops.
At one end of the spectrum, it could decide to make no provision for dissenters, although Church leaders recognise that this would create widespread protest. At the other, it could opt for a third province, which would be fiercely opposed by most of the bishops.
A compromise could be tried by building on the present system of traditionalist “flying bishops”, which was created to minister to dissenters when women were ordained as priests.
But many acknowledge that even that would not placate diehard opponents of female consecration.