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Why the Church of England rejected female bishops

Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams said the vote against female bishops was 'not intelligible' to the British or global public. The proposal was passed by the bishops and priests, but not by the Church of England's laity.

By Robert BarrAssociated Press / November 21, 2012

Dr Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, speaks during Tuesday's meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England in London. The vote went against the ordination of female bishops.

(AP Photo/PA, Yui Mok, Pool)

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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.

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On Wednesday, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron told the Church of England to "get on with it" and reverse the decision now, not five years from now.

And the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said on Wednesday: "We have – to put it very bluntly – a lot of explaining to do," he said. "Whatever the motivations for voting yesterday … 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 willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society."

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The General Synod's daylong debate Tuesday 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 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."

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