The decision Sunday by the Episcopal Church to select Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as head of the American branch could even overshadow the high-stakes issues remaining on the agenda for the church's General Convention meeting in Columbus, Ohio - including a proposal to deal with Anglican demands for a moratorium on openly gay bishops.
Disputes over the ordination and cleric status of women cut across all corners of the 77-million member Anglican Communion. They have the potential to sharply escalate the ideological clashes already threatening to rip apart the alliance of churches that goes back nearly 500 years.
"It is a massively unilateral statement from the United States to the rest of the Anglican world," said the Rev. Paul Zahl, dean of the conservative Trinity Episcopal for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. "This goes right to the foundation."
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams offered encouragement to Jefferts Schori in a statement issued Monday in London, but he also said her election "will undoubtedly have an impact on the collegial life" among the Anglican leadership.
"She has my prayers and good wishes as she takes up a deeply demanding position at a critical time," said Williams, who has used his position as spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion to act as bridge between the bickering factions.
Conservative Anglican groups around the world - led by traditionalists in Africa and England - had already prepared for a general snub by the Episcopal leadership, but had hoped for some gestures to try to preserve the communion.
The election of Jefferts Schori, a 52-year-old mother ordained in 1994, was an unexpected slap.
It raises even more complications than the ongoing clashes over same-sex blessings allowed in some areas and the 2003 confirmation of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. On these issues, conservative Anglican leaders had a clear way to retaliate: denounce the liberal trends and ban them in their domains.
"But (Jefferts) Schori cannot be so easily ignored," said Andrew Carey, a British-based commentator on Anglican affairs.
Her place among the Anglican leadership highlights the discord and fault lines over women in the priesthood since the first ordination of an Anglican women priest, Florence Li Tim-Oi, in 1944 in Hong Kong. That move was so divisive, however, she chose not to function as a priest to preserve Anglican unity.
The rules now range from full rejection of women in the Anglican clergy to full acceptance.
Elsewhere, ordination of women is often widespread, and some regions - including the United States, Canada and New Zealand - permit women to rise to bishop. However, the conservative Fort Worth Diocese asked Monday for oversight from a different Anglican leader in the wake of Jefferts Schori's election.
The first woman bishop in the communion was the Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris, who was ordained bishop suffragan of Massachusetts in 1989.
The Church of England - the historical home of the Anglican Communion - has struggled to draft plans to allow women bishops amid strong opposition from conservatives and worries it could complicate relations with the Vatican.
Earlier this month, Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican Council for Christian Unity, said that efforts for closer bonds between Rome and the Anglican Communion "would realistically no longer exist" if the Church of England went ahead with women bishops.
In London, a top official with the Church of England predicted Jefferts Schori's election will not directly influence the decision on women bishops, which is not expected until 2012 at the earliest. William Fittall, the secretary general of the church's assembly, or General Synod, said Monday it "doesn't bear directly on the Church of England's decision." The Synod meets July 7-11.