Church of England votes against women bishops

Archbishop reveals his deep sadness as clergy vote in favour but worshippers fall 6 votes short of two-thirds majority needed for change

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 4:08am

The Church of England has "undoubtedly" lost credibility, its leader said yesterday, after the mother church of millions of Anglicans worldwide narrowly rejected the appointment of women bishops.

The outcome of the vote, which followed years of wrangling between traditionalists and liberals, triggered turmoil and set back efforts to modernise the church.

In its biggest decision since backing the introduction of women priests 20 years ago, just enough lay members of England's state church voted against the measure to bring it down on Tuesday.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, its spiritual leader, accused elements inside the church of being "wilfully blind" to the priorities of wider society.

"We have, to put it very bluntly, a lot of explaining to do," Williams told the General Synod, the church's governing body.

"Whatever the motivation for voting yesterday, whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke, the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society.

"Worse than that, it seems as if we are wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society. We have ... undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society."

The legislation needed a two-thirds majority among each of the three houses in the 470-member General Synod. But though the bishops and the clergy comfortably cleared the threshold, the legislation fell short by just six voters among the laity.

The bishops voted 44 in favour and three against, while two abstained (89.8 per cent). The clergy voted 148-45 (76.7 per cent).

However, the ordinary lay members voted 132 in favour and 74 against (64.1 per cent) - 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 battling to keep the Church's various factions united.

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.

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.

Britain's newspapers were 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 Church of England is the mother church of the 85-million-strong worldwide Anglican communion.

It separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 and claims that more than 40 per cent of people in England regard themselves as members.