Female members of the clergy arrive at the venue of the three-day Church of England General Synod in central London on Nov. 20, 2012. (CARL COURT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The surprising defeat last month of a measure allowing the ordination of female bishops has plunged the Church of England into a crisis with one issue at its core: Should religion adapt to fit an increasingly secular society, or should it be the enforcer of tradition in fast-changing times?

Debate over that question is upending Britain’s official church, the symbolic heart of a global Anglican Communion that includes the Episcopal Church in the United States. The narrow loss of the measure has so infuriated liberal church leaders that many insist that the only way forward is to simply show conservatives the door.

The result is what both sides are calling a tug of war for the Church of England’s soul, offering a snapshot of one of the last frontiers of the Western world’s culture wars: the push to bring modern norms inside faith-based institutions.

The move to open the way to women was approved by bishops and clergy at a General Synod last month, but the measure failed to win a two-thirds majority among representatives of the laity. The minority that blocked the proposal portray themselves as strict interpreters of the Bible and guardians of tradition, and they warn of wider divisions if church leaders proceed with efforts to revive the plan.

At a time when casual churchgoers are abandoning pews, these conservatives argue that the Church of England cannot afford to alienate some of its most active members: Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals whose numbers are swelling even as they organize into what some here are calling a British version of the American religious right.

“What is happening here will fall into a very long story of battles amongst Christians,” said Gill R. Evans, professor of intellectual history and medieval theology at Cambridge. “If women bishops does go through, and we think it will eventually, there may very well be a proportion of the Church of England who walk away.”

In some quarters, the call for female bishops has become inexorably linked to another controversial effort, one aimed at deepening acceptance of gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex couples. The Conservative-led British government introduced a bill this month that would vest most churches and other religious groups with the legal authority to conduct same-sex marriages. Under the measure, the Church of England would for now be barred from performing such ceremonies, a concession to conservatives.

But a growing number of voices inside and outside the church are pushing for recognition of same-sex marriages and an update to a church policy that allows gay and lesbian clergy members to serve only if they are officially celibate.

A front-line struggle

The battle lines dividing the church are exceedingly clear in places such as an affluent patch of North London where the parish boundaries of All Hallows end and those of St. James begin.

Inside the vaulted timber rafters of All Hallows, the Rev. David Houlding runs a citadel of conservative faith for an aging and formal congregation. Houlding chafes at the notion of same-sex church marriages and opposes ordaining women as bishops unless parishes such as his are allowed to opt out of acknowledging their authority.

Although more than half of all new ordained clergy in Britain are women, All Hallows does not employ a single female curate.

“Europe, more than the U.S., is becoming increasingly secular, so secular that we are losing our traditional values,” he said. “That tide needs to be reversed.”

But two miles away, down rows of idyllic Georgian townhouses and picturesque parks in London’s affluent West Hampstead neighborhood, the halls of St. James parish herald what the Rev. Andrew Cain calls “the church of the future.” Cain, openly gay and partnered, employs two female curates, including Mother Christine Cargill, who holds the main Sunday services.

The congregation, including a proliferation of parishioners in their 20s and 30s, has grown slightly since he arrived 12 years ago, bucking a national trend of declining attendance. Less than 20 percent of Britons regularly attend church services.

“The vote against women bishops makes it harder for us to reach people attuned to a modern world,” Cain said. “If we can’t do this because of the conservatives blocking the way, maybe it is time they should go.”

The future of ‘our home’

Ordination of women remains a hotly contested issue in Christian denominations, with the Church of England long falling into a middle group, between traditionalists such as the Roman Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox and the Seventh-day Adventist churches that forbid female clergy and those such as its affiliated U.S. Episcopal Church that have pioneered gender and sexual equality.

The Church of England, the spiritual heart of a global Anglican Communion that numbers 85 million worshipers, granted women the right to be ordained in 1992 — almost two decades after Anglican women in the United States had won similar rights. This year, the mother church was prepared Nov. 20 to take the further step of allowing female bishops, 23 years after a diocese in Massachusetts took that action.

But the measure was defeated in the synod, not by bishops or clergy but by the lay chamber, where the required two-thirds majority fell short of six votes.

What smarted for women such as Cargill were opponents who argued that the Bible called for women to be followers, not leaders — disciples to the men who lead in Christ’s footsteps. Although conservative parishes could still sidestep female clergy, opponents argued that the power of female bishops would be impossible for male clergy to avoid. “Traditional” parishioners also might fail to recognize the ability of female bishops to ordain clergy of either sex, they further insisted.

The measure’s defeat immediately touched off an outcry. As the church’s spiritual leaders, the outgoing and incoming archbishops of Canterbury had supported the measure, and they conceded that its defeat had dealt a severe blow. Angry female parishioners protested by attending church wearing aprons, and some politicians and media columnists said the church should be stripped of its official status.

Meanwhile, the church hierarchy is scrambling to figure out how and when to resurrect the measure, whether it is by pushing forward again in a few months or waiting until a new synod is elected in 2015.

But for Cargill, who was ordained in 2010 at age 42, and other female clergy members, the stinging loss has amounted to a great test of faith and loyalty in the church they call their home.

During her sermon Sunday in the austere halls of St. James, Cargill told her congregation that she has been asked repeatedly since the vote about whether she will leave the church. Her reply, for now, is one of forgiveness and patience: “This is our home. These times will pass, and change will come.”

Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.