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Women bishops 'no' vote hits church

The Church of England is in disarray after the General Synod narrowly failed to give final approval to legislation introducing the first women bishops.

A draft measure ushering in the prospect of women bishops including a possible future female Archbishop of Canterbury cleared the Houses of bishops and clergy in the General Synod but failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority amongst lay members.

If six people had changed their vote from no to yes in the House of Laity the legislation would have received the necessary two-thirds majority.

The vote was billed as the biggest in the 20 years since the General Synod backed the introduction of women priests in 1992 and comes after 42 out of the 44 dioceses of the Church of England backed the legislation.

If the measure had received final approval, it would have gone to the Houses of Parliament before Royal Assent with the first women bishops on course to be appointed as early as 2014.

The result is a blow to the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and his successor, the Rt Rev Justin Welby, who staked their authority on a yes vote.

Speaking afterwards, Dr Williams, who leaves his post at the end of this year after a decade in office, spoke of his "deep personal sadness" at the result.

He said: "Of course I hoped and prayed that this particular business would be at another stage before I left, and course it is a personal sadness, a deep personal sadness, that that is not the case.

"I can only wish the Synod and the archbishop all good things and every blessing with resolving this in the shortest possible time."

Around a third of all Church of England clergy are women - they also make up just under a half of all those training for ordination.

Women and the Church (Watch), the campaigning group, said the result was a "devastating blow" to the Church of England.

The Rev Rachel Weir, Watch chairman, said: "This is a tragic day for the Church of England after so many years of debate and after all our attempts at compromise.

"Despite this disappointing setback, Watch will continue to campaign for the full acceptance of women's gifts of leadership in the Church's life."

But the Catholic Group on the General Synod, which backed a no vote, said in a statement: "We regret the Synod was put in the position whereby draft legislation failed at final approval because it was unclear and unfair in its provision for those who, in conscience, are unable to accept the ministry of women as bishops or priests.

"The Catholic Group calls on the House of Bishops to reconvene the talks started in the summer between representatives of different groups, chaired by Bishop Justin Welby."

The Rev Prebendary Rod Thomas, a vicar in Plymouth and chairman of the conservative evangelical grouping Reform, which recommended a no vote, 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 and witness."

The defeat comes in spite of a series of appeals from senior bishops in the Church of England for the General Synod to back final approval for the legislation.

Bishop Welby, speaking to the General Synod, pledged to protect those who oppose the ordination of women if the legislation was passed.

He said it was "time to finish the job" and vote in favour of final approval for legislation.

"It is time to finish the job and vote for this measure but also the Church of England needs to show how we can develop the mission of the Church in a way that demonstrates that we can manage diversity of view without division - diversity in amity, not diversity in enmity," he said.

The Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, Bishop of Manchester, warned of the "devastating" blow to morale if the legislation failed to be given final approval.

Failing to allow the legislation to clear its final hurdle would do "real harm" to the credibility and mission of the Church of England to the people of this nation, he said.

"If today's legislation goes down after all the work and hopes of the past few years, it would be a shock to a large number of people across the Church of England," he told the General Synod.

"It would be a devastating blow to the morale of many, not least our female clergy. It would be a major deterrent to continuing to attract into the ordained ministry able women - and many able men too," he said.

But the appeals from senior bishops were followed by a series of speeches at the General Synod opposing giving final approval to the legislation. One speaker said the Church of England was facing a "train crash".

The Rev Thomas, chairman of the conservative evangelical group Reform and a vicar in Plymouth, said they would be forced to accept the authority of a woman bishop under the legislation.

"We have to accept that authority because even when we get the alternative bishop through the diocesan scheme - the one that we have to accept is a delegate of the female bishop, so all along the line we are accepting the authority of a woman bishop. We are required to accept something that we don't believe the Bible teaches," he said.

Dr Charles Hanson told the General Synod that if women bishops were approved now it would be "second class legislation".

He added: "Being asked to sign this legislation is like being asked to sign a blank cheque."

Susannah Leafe said more discussion was needed, adding: "I genuinely believe that we can do better.

"And I just wonder if you looked at this the other way round.

"What if we say we wanted to stay together first and then try to discuss legislation for women bishops?"

The Rev Canon Chris Sugden from the Oxford Diocese urged a vote against. "Christian doctrine is not set by a popular vote as though it was Strictly Come Dancing," he said.

The Rev Angus MacLeay, from Sevenoaks in the Rochester Diocese, speaking against giving final approval to the legislation, said: "Whatever the outcome, there is no victory in the coming days. It is a train crash."

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