The Church of England has “undoubtedly” lost credibility after voting to reject the appointment of women bishops, its leader the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Wednesday.
Rowan Williams accused elements inside the church of being “wilfully blind” to the priorities of wider society after its governing body, the General Synod, voted against the move by a razor-thin margin.
Tuesday’s vote followed years of wrangling between traditionalists and liberals that exposed bitter divisions in the 85-million strong worldwide Anglican communion, as well as in its mother church.
“We have, to put it very bluntly, a lot of explaining to do,” Williams told the General Synod, after its biggest decision since it allowed female priests 20 years ago.
“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 some explaining to do; we have as a result of yesterday undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.”
The proposals needed a two-thirds majority in each house of the 470-member General Synod – composed of bishops, clergy and ordinary lay churchgoers – but fell short by just six voters among the laity.
Williams said the high threshold required to pass legislation admirably gave a strong voice to minorities but risked being seen as a “holding to hostage” of the Church by some groups.
The vote was one final setback for the liberal, wordy theologian, who is bowing out next month after 10 years of battles to keep the Church’s factions united.
Williams steps down from his post in December, but the result was also a blow to the authority of his more evangelical successor Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham. Welby, a former oil company executive, was named on November 9.
Welby tweeted: “Very grim day, most of all for women priests and supporters, need to surround all with prayer and love and cooperate with our healing God.”
The bishops held an emergency meeting before Synod resumed on Wednesday.
The proposals would have allowed a woman bishop to delegate duties to a stand-in male bishop if a parish rejected her authority.
But some supporters of women bishops voted against the proposal as they felt this plan was a messy compromise.
The Church of England will not formally be able raise the plans again until 2015 when a new General Synod comes in – but there is a back route by which the church’s top ranks could revive the initiative in July next year or even as early as February.
British Prime Minister David Cameron – himself a churchgoing Anglican – told parliament on Wednesday: “On a personal basis, I’m a strong supporter of women bishops. I’m very sad about the way the vote went.
“It’s important for the Church of England to be a modern church in touch with society as it is today, and this was a key step they needed to take.
“The time is right for women bishops. It was right many years ago. They need to get on with it, as it were, and get with the programme.”
Rejecting the notion of parliament intervening in the state church, he added: “You do have to respect the individual institutions and the way they work – while giving them a sharp prod.”
Britain’s newspapers on Wednesday were unanimous in their criticism with The Times calling the vote “a terrible failure” that marked “a sad and shameful day” for the Church.
The Church of England, which separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, claims that more than 40 per cent 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 worldwide.
Victoria Matthews, the Bishop of Christchurch in New Zealand, said she was disappointed by the result.
“I still believe that there has been this isolated traditionalist group that has got more and more distant from the mainline of the church,” she told the BBC.