By Alessandra Prentice
LONDON (Reuters) - The Church of England voted on Tuesday against allowing women to become bishops, guaranteeing more internal strife over an issue that has for years divided the mother church for the world's 80 million Anglicans.
After hours of debate, bishops and clergy in the General Synod, the Church legislature, comfortably backed the change but lay members were four votes short of a two-thirds majority.
"It was carried in the houses of bishops and clergy, but lost in the house of laity. The motion having been lost ... we do not proceed any further," said the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu.
Some women priests in the public gallery wiped away tears, knowing the measure cannot now be approved for at least another five years.
"Senior women clergy must feel despondent and most bishops and most clergy, male or female, feel hugely sad and, worse than sad, embarrassed and angry," said Christina Rees, a Synod member and former chair of the advocacy group Women and the Church.
"Women bishops will come, but this is an unnecessary and an unholy delay."
Women already serve as Anglican bishops in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, but Anglican churches in many developing countries oppose any female clergy and are working together to shield themselves against such reforms.
The Church of England finds itself somewhere in the middle, struggling to reconcile the views of reformers and traditionalists.
It had already agreed to allow women bishops in theory but Tuesday's vote, on provisions for those who are theologically opposed, had to be passed before any appointments could be made.
TEST FOR NEW LEADER
The outcome presents a major test for Justin Welby, who takes over as the spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican Communion when Rowan Williams steps down as Archbishop of Canterbury at year's end. Both of them supported the reform.
"How much energy do we want to spend on this in the next decade ... and how much do we want to bind the extraordinary energy and skills of the new archbishop?" said Williams as he implored the Synod to back the legislation before the vote.
After the result was known, he told the BBC:
"This vote of course isn't the end of the story. This is not an issue that's going to go away because the fact is three-quarters of the total membership of the synod voted for this ...
"Nobody wants to go on talking about this indefinitely."
More than 100 members spoke during six hours of discussion in Church House, the Church's central London headquarters.
The dispute centered on ways to designate alternative male bishops to work with traditionalist parishes that might reject the authority of a woman bishop named to head their diocese.
Conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics argue that a male-only clergy is God's will, or say that ordaining women bishops would break with a tradition of male church leaders that stretches back to Jesus's Twelve Apostles.
In the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, only bishops can ordain priests and assure the continuation of the clergy.
Welby, an experienced conflict negotiator, urged members to vote for the measure.
"At this very moment, in places from Israel and Gaza to Goma in the Congo, there is killing and suffering because difference cannot be dealt with," he said.
But lay member Jane Patterson urged the Synod not to "bow to cultural pressure", warning that more priests would defect to the Roman Catholic Church, where there are no female clergy, if the law were passed.
About 60 traditionalist clergy, including five male bishops, and about 900 lay members have already switched to Catholicism.
(Writing by Michael Holden; Editing by Kevin Liffey)