A sticker supporting Women Bishops is displayed on a car parked at Church House on Nov. 20, 2012 in London, England. (Peter Macdiarmid/GETTY IMAGES)

Prime Minister David Cameron told the Church of England on Wednesday to “get with the program” on female bishops after a rejection of the reform at this week’s General Synod plunged Britain’s Anglican community into crisis.

Addressing members of Parliament, Cameron said he was “very sad” that the modernizing plans, which have been under discussion for the past 12 years, had failed to cross the final hurdle into canon law.

“Now I’m very clear, the time is right for women bishops,” Cameron said. “It was right many years ago, they need to get on with it as it were and get with the program, but you do have to respect the individual institutions and the way they work, while giving them a sharp prod.”

Although any challenge from Parliament to the church would signify a serious break with convention, a number of Labor MPs are pushing for the House of Commons to intervene. Ben Bradshaw, former culture secretary, has suggested that members of Parliament could review the church’s exemption from equalities legislation, while MP Diana Johnson is understood to be trying to secure an urgent question on the issue. 

The 470-strong synod defeated the motion by just six votes Tuesday.

For Rowan Williams, the outgoing archbishop of Canterbury, this failure to reach agreement before he steps down in December is a personal defeat. He told colleagues that voting down the proposals had been a blow to the church’s credibility with the public. 

“We have, to put it bluntly, a lot of explaining to do,” Williams told the synod. “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 of England has battled with this legislation for the past 12 years, and it remains a highly emotional issue. Traditionalists maintain that the legislation is ill-drafted and that they are being asked to support a position that is in conflict with the Bible.

Campaigners in favor of female bishops held a vigil of the steps of Church House, while the General Synod continued inside. Their plans had won overwhelming support from bishops and clerics but were dealt a fatal blow by the synod’s lay members. It is unclear how church leaders will proceed, given that their rules dictate that there cannot be another vote on the existing draft legislation until the new synod is elected in three years.

The House of Bishops is expected to discuss the issue at a meeting in December, and it will be on the agenda at the General Synod planned for July. 

An official close to Maria Miller, minister for women and equalities, expressed concern about the move. “Whilst this is a matter for the church, it’s very disappointing,” the official said. “As we seek to help women fulfill their potential throughout society, this ruling would suggest the church is at the very least behind the times.”

The task of uniting the opposing parties will fall to Justin Welby, the archbishop-designate who takes over from Williams at the beginning of next year. Having tweeted immediately after the vote that it was a “very grim day” for the church, Bishop Welby was more lighthearted Wednesday about the scale of the challenge facing him.

Accepting an award as Spectator magazine’s “peer of the year,” Welby joked that he had achieved the rare distinction of losing a vote of confidence before even having assumed office.

The archbishop-designate, who sits on the parliamentary committee on banking standards, had received commiserations from Chancellor George Osborne, who was giving evidence to the panel.

“I thought I had a difficult job but, over the last 48 hours, I have seen you have got a much more difficult job and I wish you very well personally with that,” Osborne said.

— Financial Times