Church of England bishops were to host an emergency session on Wednesday after the church narrowly rejected the appointment of women bishops, triggering turmoil and setting back efforts to modernise the mother church of millions of Anglicans worldwide.
Bishops were to consider the vote’s consequences, with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to make a statement afterwards.
In its biggest decision since backing the introduction of women priests 20 years ago, just enough lay members of the church voted against the measure to bring it down, following years of wrangling between traditionalists and liberals.
Williams, the church’s spiritual leader, said the result plunged him into “deep personal sadness”, whilst other bishops worried that the national church risked becoming a “national embarrassment”.
Newspapers were on Wednesday unanimous in their criticism with The Times calling the vote “a terrible failure” that marked “a sad and shameful day” for the church.
Andrew Brown, editor of the Belief section of the Guardian’s comments pages, argued the church was now in danger of complete collapse, saying “I think I have just watched the Church of England commit suicide.”
The legislation needed a two-thirds majority among each of the three houses in the 470-member General Synod, the church’s governing body.
But though the bishops and the clergy comfortably cleared the threshold, the legislation fell short by just six voters among the laity, a razor-thin margin.
The bishops voted 44 in favour and three against, while two abstained (89.8 percent). The clergy voted 148-45 (76.7 percent).
However, the ordinary lay members voted 132 in favour and 74 against (64.1 percent) — six votes shy of the threshold.
The vote was one final setback for liberal theologian Williams, who steps down in December after 10 years of battles to keep the Church’s various factions united.
“Of course I hoped and prayed that this particular business would be at another stage before I left, and course it is a… deep personal sadness that that is not the case,” the leader of the world’s Anglicans said.
The result will also be considered a blow to the authority of Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham who takes over from Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, told reporters: “I feel enormously sorry for Archbishop Rowan that he has not been supported by the lay people of this Synod and I feel it adds to the challenge of Bishop Justin.”
Welby said he was going to take stock overnight.
The proposals would have allowed a woman bishop to delegate duties to a stand-in male bishop if a parish rejected her authority. Some who back women bishops voted against as they felt this plan was a messy compromise.
The setback left bishops in dismay.
“I’m hugely disappointed,” Cottrell told reporters.
“I don’t think people in the world, in parliament, even in our churches will understand.
“There’s a danger that the national church becomes a bit of a national embarrassment over this.”
He said the irony was that all three houses had clearly backed having women bishops — as had 42 of the 44 church dioceses beforehand.
The vote followed seven hours of debate and passionate speeches at Church House, close by Westminster Abbey.
The Catholic Group in General Synod, a traditionalist body, said the legislation failed “because it was unclear and unfair in its provision for those who, in conscience, are unable to accept the ministry of women as bishops or priests.”
The Church of England will not be able raise the plans again until 2015 when a new General Synod comes in.
However, the “Group of Six”, a body which includes the CofE’s two archbishops, could give special permission to revive it at the next Synod meeting, set for July — though an extraordinary one could be called in February.
A simple majority vote in the Synod would put the plans on the next meeting’s agenda.
The Church of England is the mother church of the 85-million-strong worldwide Anglican communion.
The CofE, which separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, claims that more than 40 percent of people in England regard themselves as members.
The wider Anglican communion’s first woman bishop was appointed in the United States in 1989 and there are now 37 Anglican bishops worldwide, in countries including Australia, Canada, Cuba, New Zealand and Swaziland.