THE Church of England was facing its biggest crisis of modern times last night after the General Synod tore up plans to ordain women as bishops despite overwhelming support in parishes.
After a tortuous 12-year legal process, which secured strong backing in all but two of the church's 44 dioceses, the move was denied final approval by just six votes in one part of the synod.
It marks a disastrous end to the tenure at Lambeth Palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Wiliams, after he pinned his hopes for a legacy on the outcome.
It also presents a dramatic challenge to his successor, the Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, who publicly staked his authority on a vote in favour.
Dr Williams spoke of "deep personal sadness" as one bishop described it a "very dark day for the church". Bishop Welby said he needed time to think about the decision.
MPs expressed dismay and warned that the decision would fuel calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England.
The decision averts the prospect of a small group of conservative evangelicals and traditionalist Anglo-Catholics, who object to women bishops on theological grounds, from leaving the Church of England. However, there were warnings that it threatens a crisis of morale in parishes, especially among women clergy.
Supporters of the plans lined up during the debate at a special sitting of the General Synod yesterday to warn that it would be a "suicide" for the church's "mission" in society to reject the measure in the face of strong support.
But delegates were swayed by strong arguments that a hard-fought compromise clause would not be enough to prevent traditionalists from leaving.
There will now almost certainly be calls in the UK parliament for the Church of England's special exemption from equality legislation – effectively allowing it to discriminate against women by barring them from becoming bishops – to be taken away.
That would open the way for women to bring a legal challenge to their exclusion. If successful, it could lead to women becoming bishops without any of the carefully arranged safeguards for traditionalists.
Opponents of the measure said they would to sit down with Bishop Welby and attempt to find a way forward. But under the church's rules, the no vote has effectively killed off the prospect of women bishops in the Church of England for another five years.
Ben Bradshaw, the former Labour minister, said MPs would react with "a mixture of dismay and incomprehension".
"This means the church is being held hostage by an unholy and unrepresentative alliance of conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics.
The Rev Rod Thomas, the chairman of the evangelical group Reform, said: "My overall conclusion is that it is very good news for the Church of England. We have avoided what could have been a disastrous mistake for our unity." (© Daily Telegraph, London)