Following a day-long debate on Tuesday, opponents mustered enough support to deny the necessary two-thirds majority among lay members of the General Synod.
The defeat was a setback for Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who retires at the end of December, and his successor, Bishop Justin Welby. Both had strongly endorsed a proposed compromise that they had hoped would end decades of debate.
Passage of legislation to allow women to serve as bishops must be approved by two-thirds majorities in the synod's three houses: bishops, priests and laity. Synod members were voting on the latest compromise which calls for church leaders to "respect" the position of parishes that oppose female bishops — without saying exactly what "respect" means.
The vote was 132 in favor and 74 against. In separate votes, bishops voted 44-3 in favor with 2 abstentions, and clergy voted 148-45 in favor.
Church officials say it may take five years to go through the process of taking new legislation to a final vote.
In the day-long debate, many speakers expressed regret that they were unable to agree on a way forward.
"Whatever the outcome, there is no victory in the coming days. It is a train crash," said Rev. Angus MacLeay, summing up for the opposition.
Sister churches of the Anglican Communion in Australia, New Zealand and the United States already have women serving as bishops.
Southern Africa joined that group on Sunday with the consecration of Ellinah Wamukoya as the Anglican bishop of Swaziland.
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