LONDON — The Church of England's governing body blocked a move Tuesday to permit women to serve as bishops in a vote so close it failed to settle the question of female leadership and likely condemned the institution to years more debate on the issue.
The General Synod's daylong debate ended with the rejection of a compromise that was intended to unify the faithful despite differing views on whether women should be allowed in the hierarchy. But backers failed to gain the necessary majority by six votes.
"There is no victory in the coming days," said Rev. Angus MacLeay. "It is a train crash."
The defeat was a setback for Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who retires at the end of December, and his successor, Bishop Justin Welby. Both had strongly endorsed a proposed compromise that would have respected the decision of those who objected to the ordination of women bishops.
Instead of ending decades of debate on the issue in the church, the narrow defeat opens the church, which has around 80 million members worldwide, to further years of internal discussions. It also forms an uncomfortable backdrop to the start of Welby's leadership. He is due to be enthroned in March.
Passage of legislation to allow women to serve as bishops must be approved by two-thirds majorities in the synod's three houses: bishops, priests and laity. Some took heart in the fact that both the bishops and the clergy voted overwhelmingly in favor. But among the laity, the vote fell short, with 132-74.
"This leaves us with a problem," said Bishop Graham James of Norwich. "Forty-two out of 44 dioceses approved the legislation and more than three-quarters of members of diocesan synods voted in favor.
"There will be many who wonder why the General Synod expressed its mind so differently," James added.
Rev. Rachel Weir, leader of Women and the Church, said the group was "absolutely devastated."
"Obviously this will be an enormous blow to clergy women, it's awful for their morale — but it's a disaster for the Church of England."
Despite the vote, several bishops noted that a woman, Queen Elizabeth II, is the church's supreme governor.
It has been 36 years since the General Synod declared it had no fundamental objection to ordaining women as priests, and 18 years since the first women were ordained. But that change never won universal acceptance in the church, with a determined minority arguing that that the move was contrary to the Bible.
That group, affirming what it sees as the Biblical idea of male "headship," has demanded special arrangements to shield it from supervision by female bishops.
Synod members were voting on the latest compromise. It called for church leaders to "respect" the position of parishes that oppose female bishops — without saying what "respect" would mean in practice.
"The trouble is our disagreement is absolute: either a woman can be a bishop, or she cannot," said Rev. Janet Appleby, a parish priest who drafted the compromise.
But she added that "respect ... ensures that parishes that are unable in conscience to accept women priests and bishops will be able to receive appropriate ministerial and episcopal oversight."
But some found fault with the measure itself. Canon Simon Killwick from Manchester argued that it was "possible to be in favor of women bishops in principle, but to believe that this was the wrong legislation for introducing women bishops."
Church officials say it may take five years to go through the process of taking new legislation to a final vote.
There was much talk from opponents about fresh negotiations, but few ideas about how to resolve the split. Bishops called an emergency meeting for Wednesday morning to assess the result, church officials said.
"We all think something different is right," said Rev. James Dudley-Smith. "We are divided and yet today we are forcing ourselves to vote."
Sister churches of the Anglican Communion in Australia, New Zealand and the United States already have women serving as bishops.
Southern Africa joined that group on Sunday with the consecration of Ellinah Wamukoya as the Anglican bishop of Swaziland.