Katharine Jefferts Schori, a liberal bishop from Nevada who was raised a Catholic, was elected on Sunday as the first woman leader of the 2.3 million-member US Episcopal Church.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Bishop Schori, who has liberal views on homosexuality, is the first woman primate in Anglican history. Her role as Presiding Bishop is the equivalent to that of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
But the development is as historic as it is divisive and could see a potential break-up of the worldwide Anglican denomination.
Conservatives predicted Bishop Schori, 52, would lead the Anglican church further along its liberal path on issues such as homosexuality, and her election will dismay traditionalists opposed to women priests.
The only other countries to have women bishops are New Zealand and Canada.
A leading traditionalist, the Right Reverend Jack Iker, said: "She will be the only woman among 38 primates and the majority of them do not even recognise women bishops. This is going to be very difficult for the Archbishop of Canterbury."
But Bishop Schori says "it will be a great adventure."
Asked whether she was chosen to "send a message" to the wider Anglican community upset with the US church, Bishop Schori told reporters, "God welcomes all. Those who agree and disagree."
She promised to reconcile with those in the US church who are upset with its direction after she is installed at a ceremony in Washington's National Cathedral in November.
Bishop Schori was raised a Roman Catholic, is a qualified pilot and graduated in marine biology with a doctorate specialisation in squids and oysters.
Anglicans first lady threatens church unity (The Sydney Morning Herald 20/6/06)
Anglican women bishops dash unity hopes: Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor (CathNews 15/6/06)
Reactions to first woman primate range from elation to disappointment (Anglican Journal 19/6/06)
New model schism for Anglicans? (BBC 19/6/06)