It is 18 years since the Church of England took the decision to break with 2,000 years of Christian tradition and ordain women as priests. Outsiders might have felt that it was, therefore, only a matter of time before some of those priests – who now make up a third of all the nation's 11,000 Anglican clerics – distinguished themselves by their service sufficiently to make the case that they should become bishops. But there has been nothing self-evident about the way the Church has behaved in the tortuous 12 years since the process to allow women into the episcopate was set in train.
To the secular world, the case for women to become bishops is the same as that regarding the priesthood. It is a matter of equality and inclusion. In fairness, most people inside the Church agree, seeing inclusion and equality before God as central values of the Christian gospel. The majority of bishops, priests and lay members of the Church have long accepted that. But, because of the highly cautious structures of the established Church, a two-thirds majority was needed in all three houses of its General Synod to effect change. And that has allowed a recalcitrant minority to prevent the Church from entering the 20th, let alone the 21st, century.
Most of the public have little time for arcane theological arguments from traditionalist Anglo-Catholics about the Apostolic Succession and the fact that Jesus chose only men to be his disciples. (He also only chose Jews which does not appear to have disbarred the vast majority of male Anglicans from the priesthood.) Nor does contemporary society care much for Pauline scriptural exegesis from conservative evangelicals about the headship of Christ. But the unholy alliance between these two groups has effectively scuppered the chances of the Church of England having a role of any more significance in contemporary society than merely officiating at a few state occasions.
That is a tragedy. The British people still look to the Church for spiritual succour in times of national crisis and for moral leadership in times of both affluence and austerity. The outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was able to provide such counsel over issues as diverse as the war in Iraq, the global financial crisis, and attitudes to British Muslims. But the bulk of his time in office has been consumed by a vain attempt to hold together a Church of England, and wider Anglican Communion, bitterly riven by controversy over sexuality and gender.
The No vote is not only a blow for Dr Williams. It is also a difficult beginning for his successor, Justin Welby. He has, of course, been spared the problem of a few more disgruntled traditionalists joining the thousand or so Anglicans who jumped ship to join the Ordinariate set up by the Vatican to poach unhappy Anglo-Catholics. But emboldened conservative evangelicals will now fight harder still against same-sex marriage and gay priests. It can only be hoped that Dr Welby holds firm to the principles of inclusion and equality, along with the Christian imperative to love rather than to disdain their fellow creatures, which he has already hinted will govern his approach to the job.
Regardless, yesterday's vote can only mean the Church's voice will have less credibility in areas where its contribution ought to be welcomed – be that on banking reform, the ethical behaviour of big business, fairness in public spending cuts, the conduct of the nation's foreign policy and how a multicultural society replenishes the cultural capital it inherited from Christianity. On all these, the Church might have much to say. But after yesterday's betrayal of the principles of equality, will anyone listen?