By Avril Ormsby
YORK, England (Reuters) - The Church of England delayed a vote on allowing women bishops on Monday after reformers rejected a last-minute concession to conservatives keen to keep the posts reserved for men only.
The Church's General Synod voted to send back to their current bishops for further consideration an amendment allowing dissenting parishes to choose their male bishop as their leader if a woman is named to head their diocese.
That put off a final vote on the draft legislation, which most Church of England dioceses have already approved, until the Church's next synod, or parliament, in November.
Along with the question of same-sex marriages, the consecration of women as bishops is among the most divisive issues facing the world's 77 million Anglicans.
Women already serve as bishops in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States but the Church of England, the mother church for the worldwide Anglican Communion, has been mired in a dispute between reformers and traditionalists.
The thought of voting for the amendment, which campaigners for women bishops said would enshrine discrimination against women in law and reduce them to "second-class bishops", was too much for many reform-minded delegates.
It was a bittersweet moment for supporters who have battled more than 10 years to see women don the mitre, the bishop's hat that signifies the authority to ordain priests, head dioceses and claim a link back to the original Twelve Apostles.
"Leaving here with unfinished business will feel like an anti-climax," the Bishop of Dover, Trevor Willmott, said, when proposing the adjournment.
"But there are worse things than unfinished business. To leave here having driven this legislative process over the cliff would be the worst of all outcomes."
Conservative evangelicals, who make up a growing, youthful and wealthy part of the church, believe the Bible says only men can be Church leaders. They say they may withhold funds or join independent churches if there is insufficient provision for this view.
Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics want to preserve the chain of male authority in the Church that they say goes back 2,000 years to the dawn of Christianity. They say a woman bishop ordaining male or female priests, or even a male bishop ordaining a woman priest, would break that chain.
Rowan Williams, who as Archbishop of Canterbury is head of the Church of England and spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, said an adjournment would give "at least the chance of lowering temperatures".
Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and conservative evangelicals have said they will use the adjournment to ask for more protection for their interpretation of the role of a bishop.
It leaves the bishops the tricky task of trying to come up with a solution that pleases all sides, having already been criticized for ignoring the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the church's dioceses by proposing the amendment.
The amendment would guarantee that any parish objecting to a woman bishop could opt to follow an alternative male bishop of its choosing who has consistent theological convictions - going further than the original draft legislation.
Anything agreed by the synod will have to be robust enough to get through Britain's parliament, which is currently considering reducing the number of bishops in the House of Lords, or upper chamber.
Many observers had expected the Church of England, which approved women priests 20 years ago, to follow other churches in the Communion in allowing women bishops.
Each of the 44 member churches in the Communion can decide for itself to take this step or not. Many Anglicans in developing countries are strongly opposed to women clergy.
But the Church of England hit a stalemate after the bishops introduced the amendment in May in an attempt to reassure the traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and conservative evangelicals.
Those who support women bishops want the amendment removed, even if it means a short delay after all their years of working for the measure.
"I would infinitely prefer it to go back to the bishops to give them one more chance rather than defeat it now," Jean Mayland, 76, who was one of the first women to be ordained a priest in 1994, told Reuters on the eve of the vote.
"Maybe in November we will still have to defeat it, but we have to keep on hoping, praying and trusting."