'We have lost credibility' ... Rowan Williams makes his farewell speech to the General Synod. Photo: Getty Images
The Church of England has "a lot of explaining to do" to the church and to wider society after its rejection of legislation that would have allowed women to become bishops, the outgoing archbishop of Canterbury has said.
In a strongly worded speech to the General Synod on Wednesday, Rowan Williams warned that the failure of the vote in the house of laity on Tuesday had made the church's governing body appear "wilfully blind" to the priorities of secular society.
It seems as if we are wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society.Rowan Williams
"We have – to put it very bluntly – a lot of explaining to do," he said. "Whatever the motivations for voting ... the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society. Worse than that, it seems as if we are wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society."
Archbishop Williams, who will be succeeded as head of the church by Justin Welby, the bishop of Durham, next year, said the church had "undoubtedly" lost credibility due to the move. That was why the issue of female bishops could not simply be "parked" but had to be worked on further with urgency.
"We have as a result of yesterday undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society," he said.
"After all the effort that's gone into this process over the last few years, after the intense frustration that has been experienced in recent years ... it would be tempting to conclude that it's too difficult, that perhaps the issue should be parked for a while. I do not believe that is possible because of ... the sense of credibility in the wider society.
"Every day that we fail to resolve this to our satisfaction ... is a day when our credibility in the public eye is likely to diminish."
The church, he added, had to take that seriously, "however uncomfortable that message may be". "We can't afford to hang about. We can't ... indefinitely go on living simply theologically with the anomaly of women priests who cannot be considered bishops," he said.
The church is reeling from Tuesday's vote, in which legislation that had been worked on for 12 years in synod was rejected by six votes in the house of laity. In the houses of bishops and clergy, the measure that could have seen the first woman consecrated to the episcopate in 2014 was passed with comfortable majorities.
Archbishop Williams said the nature of the vote meant that the church needed to explain why it insisted on such high margins – two-thirds approval – for important measures to pass.
Warning of the risks, he noted, "[Synod process] is not simply to be seen as a holding to hostage by certain groups."
Condemning the "unrealism" of those who had voted the legislation down out of the hope they could find a better solution, Archbishop Williams said: "The idea that there is a readily available formula just around the corner is in my view an illusion. There is no short cut here; there is no simple God-given, dare I say, solution to a problem which brings people's deepest convictions into conflict in the way in which they have come into conflict in the synod and previously."
Guardian News & Media