LONDON — The surprising defeat last month of a measure allowing the ordination of women as 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 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 the only way forward now is to show conservatives the door.
The result is what both sides are calling a tug of war for the Church of England’s soul, one offering a snapshot into the last frontier of the Western world’s culture wars: the push to bring modern norms inside faith-based institutions.
The move opening the way to women was approved by bishops and clergy at a General Synod last month, but it failed to win a two-thirds majority among lay representatives. Those in the minority who blocked the proposal portray themselves as guardians of tradition, and they caution against wider divisions if church leaders proceed with efforts to revive the plan.
As causal churchgoers are abandoning pews, these conservatives argue that the Church of England cannot afford to alienate some of its most active members: conservative Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals whose numbers are swelling even as they organize into what some here are dubbing a British version of the religious right.
In some quarters, the call for women bishops has become inexorably linked to another controversial effort, one aimed at deepening acceptance of gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex couples.
A growing number both inside and outside the church are pushing for recognition of same-sex marriages and for an update to a church policy that allows gay and lesbian clergy to serve only if they are officially celibate.
The battle lines are clear in places like an affluent patch of North London where the parish boundaries of All Hallows ends and St. James begins.
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 women bishops unless parishes like his are granted opt-outs from acknowledging their power.
Despite the fact that more than half of all new ordained clergy in Britain are now women, All Hallows does not employ a single female curate.
‘‘Europe, more than the US, is becoming increasingly secular, so secular that we are losing our traditional values,’’ he said. ‘‘That tide needs to be reversed.’’
But 2 miles away, in the affluent West Hampstead neighborhoodof London, the halls of St. James Parish herald what the Rev. Andrew Cain calls ‘‘the church of the future.’’ Openly gay and with a same-sex partner, he employs two female curates, including the Rev. Christine Cargill, who presides at the main Sunday services.
The congregation, including a proliferation of younger parishioners in their 20s and 30s, has grown slightly since he arrived 12 years ago, bucking a national trend that sees less than 20 percent of Britons regularly attending church services.
‘‘The vote against women bishops makes it harder for us to reach people attuned to a modern world,’’ he said. ‘‘If we can’t do this because of the conservatives blocking the way, maybe it is time they should go.’’
‘Europe, more than the US, is becoming increasingly secular, so secular that we are losing our traditional values.’
The Church of England, the spiritual heart of a global Anglican Communion that numbers 85 million worshippers, allowed women to be ordained as priests in 1992, 16 years after the Episcopal Church granted similar recognition.
This year, the mother church was prepared on Nov. 20 to take the further step of allowing female bishops, 23 years after the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts took that action.
But the measure was defeated in the synod, not by bishops or clergy, but by the lay chamber, where it lost the required two-thirds majority by 6 votes.