LONDON (Reuters) - The Archbishop of Canterbury accused his Church of England of being wilfully blind to the attitudes of modern British society on Wednesday after it voted 'no' to women bishops, a triumph for its traditionalist minority.
After more than 10 years of divisive debate, the General Synod, the Church legislature, failed to pass the measure on Tuesday evening by just six votes despite the fact that 42 of the Church's 44 dioceses had earlier approved it.
Women have served as priests in the Church for over 20 years, but Tuesday's vote effectively denied them access to the upper echelons of the hierarchy for several more years to come.
This is at odds with the much of British society, where gender equality is seen as a given right. Newspaper commentaries on Wednesday portrayed the Church as seriously out of step and in danger of becoming irrelevant.
"It seems as if we are wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of ... wider society," Archbishop Rowan Williams said in a speech to the Synod still meeting after the vote.
"We have some explaining to do. We have as a result of yesterday undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society."
The structure of the Synod means the proposed reforms must now be postponed for at least another five years, extending a debate that has pitted reformists against conservatives.
The Church's second most senior cleric denied accusations it was facing an existential crisis after the vote.
"This morning people have been saying 'the Church has committed suicide, the Church is dead,'" Archbishop of York John Sentamu told BBC Radio.
"Well, dead people don't converse. We have been conversing, we have not committed suicide at all, we are very much living," he said.
There are already female Anglican bishops in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, but progress has been hobbled in England by an inability to ways to accommodate conservatives who say a male-only clergy is the will of God.
The Church has already voted for women bishops in theory, but before they can be ordained, it needs to agree a provision to allow alternative male bishops to minister to any parishes that object to a woman heading their diocese.
The Church of England, mother church for the world's 80 million Anglicans, must focus on the issue or risk alienating wider society, Williams said. Polls show there is substantial support for women bishops among Anglican believers in Britain.
"Every day in which we fail to resolve this to our satisfaction, is a day when our credibility in the public eye is likely to diminish ... we can't afford to hang about," he said.
Tony Baldry, a Conservative deputy who speaks for the Church in Parliament, told Reuters the institution now risked becoming irrelevant to many Britons.
"The greatest risk now for the Church of England is just disinterest - there is risk that it will simply look like some other religious sect," he said.
"There is no white rabbit that can be instantly pulled out of the hat, either in Parliament or the General Synod, that is going to resolve this issue, which makes this decision all the more tragic."
By contrast, the conservative group Reform welcomed the outcome. "We thank God that the Church of England has avoided making a big mistake which would have led to real division and a less inclusive Church," it said in a statement.
"It has avoided putting significant minorities who, as faithful Anglicans seek to follow the Bible's teaching, into an impossible position."
Reporting By Alessandra Prentice, editing by Tom Heneghan