Supporters and opponents of women bishops are gearing up for months of frantic lobbying as a potentially historic vote which might have approved legislation today was temporarily stayed following an impassioned debate on the crucial issue.
The decision to postpone the key legislation until November is a bitter-sweet victory for those who wish to see the church's final glass ceiling shattered but were almost on the verge of having to vote against the very issue they had been pushing for over the last two decades.
Many felt unable to approve the legislation after the church's House of Bishops – led by the Archbishop of Canterbury – tabled a last minute amendment which provided stronger safeguards for those who are theologically opposed to female leadership. Those who wanted to see women bishops become a reality suddenly felt the wording would continue to enshrine gender discrimination within the church. Instead they called on supporters to opt for an adjournment in the hope that it will pile pressure on senior clergy to abandon – or significantly reword – the offending amendments.
By delaying a vote on the proposals they have hit the ball firmly back into the court of the House of Bishops who now face the unenviable task of finding a form of legislation which appeals to both sides of what has become a bitter divide.
The House of Bishops will meet in September with the newly worded legislation expected to return to synod in November.
The postponement is a considerable embarrassment for Dr Williams and the senior clerics who backed the last-minute safeguards. The bishops had hoped that the amendments would avoid the prospect of conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics walking out unless they are given guarantees that they will not have to serve under a woman – or a man who has ordained women.
But even the dissenters looked set to vote against the proposals because in their eyes the safeguards did not go far enough. The impasse left the Church of England confronting the real possibility of women bishops legislation stumbling at the final hurdle.
In an impassioned mea culpa, Dr Williams today admitted that the bishops' attempts to find a compromise had clearly failed.
“When there is a reaction of real hurt and offence in the church at large, Christians and Christian pastors particularly cannot afford to ignore it,” he told members of the church's general synod in York. “The bishops will be aware that they underrated the depth of that sense of hurt and offence. And if other bishops feel as I do they will need to examine themselves and feel appropriate penitence that they did not recognise how difficult that was going to be.”
But he warned that adjourning the issue would be “no panacea”. Instead, he argued, it would give the church “a chance to lower the temperature” on an issue that had caused deep upset.
Throughout the two hour debate, impassioned views were heard from all sides of the divide.
Celia Thomson, Canon Pastor of Gloucester cathedral, warned that the church's reputation was being damaged by its inability to push ahead with women bishops. “Never in my experience has the church been so out of step with the good news and of the people of this country,” she said.
But Lorna Ashworth, a conservative evangelical from Chichester who is opposed to women bishops, appealed to Anglicans to find a suitable opt out for people like her. “There is not just one group of women in this church with one voice,” she said. “This liberated, God fearing, Jesus loving, conservative evangelical wants to remain within the Church of England.”
The Church's inability to pass women bishops legislation was also described as a "train crash" by senior Tory MP. Sir Tony Baldry, who represents the church in the House of Commons, said any failure of the legislation could damage the church's position in the house of Lords. "If you have a train crash this afternoon, all I am saying is that my task of maintaining bishops in a mainly elected second chamber is going to be infinitely more difficult, if not impossible."