The Church of England is to be ostracized by the body that represents the majority of Anglicans after it backed blessings for gay couples.
For the first time in its history, General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body, voted on Thursday for vicars to be allowed to give same-sex couples, including those in civil marriages, prayers of blessing.
The church’s position on gay marriage will however not change and same-sex couples will still be unable to marry in church, triggering criticisms from both gay and normal people.
Priests will have the option to bless gay couples but can opt out. But the motion was passed in all three of synod’s ‘houses,’ but not without sharp divisions that threaten to cause split in the body of the church.
The Church of England Evangelical Council said it was “deeply saddened and profoundly grieved” by the move, warning that “the Church of England now appears set on a course of action that rejects our historic and biblical understanding of sex and marriage.”
“This seems to us to be a lose-lose position for everyone in the Church of England. Those who wanted more change will continue to ask and push for greater change. Those of us who have been trying to uphold the historic and biblical understanding of marriage and singleness say change has gone too far.”
On Thursday night, the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA), which claims to represent 75 per cent of Anglicans worldwide, warned the result had “triggered a widespread loss of confidence” in Justin Welby, who as Archbishop of Canterbury is the worldwide Anglican Communion’s spiritual leader.
On Monday, 12 of the 42 global Anglican provinces will meet to “take decisive steps towards re-setting the Anglican Communion”, according to GSFA.
It is understood that these steps will include official advice for churches to split and survive without CofE funds, potentially causing a schism in the 156-year-old Communion.
While Orthodox churches “are not leaving”, they now “must recognize that the Church of England has now joined those provinces with which communion is impaired”, the GSFA said.
The Revd Paul Eddy, of the GSFA, said: “There is now a widespread loss of confidence in his [Welby’s] leadership within the Communion.
“On Monday, the Global South primates meet to agree a detailed response and to fast-forward proposals to ‘reset’ the Communion, creating new foundations for fellowship, including how the Communion handles provinces who act unilaterally on matters of biblical faith and order.
“Morally, Archbishop Welby and the bishops have voted to leave an orthodox, biblical Anglican Communion. The GSFA deeply regrets this.”
Synod’s three houses of bishops, clergy and laymen approved the blessings for gay couples on Thursday by 250 to 181, with 10 abstentions. The move was led by Sarah Mullally, the Bishop of London, who said it was “a moment of hope for the Church.”
The Church of England’s synod on Thursday voted to let priests bless same-sex marriages and civil partnerships, while continuing to ban church weddings for the same couples.
Bishops proposed the compromise measure after five years of discussions about the church’s position on sexuality. It was approved by the church’s General Synod, which is made up of bishops, clergy and lay people from around the country, following eight hours of debate over two days at a meeting in London.
The measure included an apology for the church’s failure welcome LGBTQ people. But it also endorsed the doctrine that marriage is between one man and one woman, meaning priests are still barred from marrying same-sex couples.
“I know that what we have proposed as a way forward does not go nearly far enough for many but too far for others,” the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, said in a statement. “It is my prayer that what has been agreed today will represent a step forward for all of us within the Church — including LGBTQI+ people — as we remain committed to walking together.”
Jayne Ozanne, a gay rights campaigner and member of the synod, said she was “deeply disappointed” that conservatives had stifled the church’s debate on sexuality. The synod earlier this week rejected an amendment proposed by Ozanne that would have put the issue of marriage equality back on the agenda later this year.
“By continuing to tell LGB people that they cannot hope to get married any time soon in their church or that their desire for sexual intimacy is sinful, we send a message to the nation that few will understand,” Ozanne said on Twitter. “More importantly, it is a message that will continue to cause great harm to the LGBT community and put young LGBT+ lives at risk.”
Same-sex marriage has been legal in England and Wales since 2013, but the church didn’t alter its teaching on marriage when the law changed.
Public opinion surveys consistently show that a majority of people in England support same-sex marriage. But the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said the church continues to have “deep divisions” on the issue.
The measure approved Thursday endorses a proposal from the church’s bishops to allow clergy to bless the unions of same-sex couples after they marry or have a partnership recognized by civil authorities. But clergy members won’t be required to perform such blessings if they disagree with them.
The blessings are expected to begin later this year after the bishops refine their guidance and issue prayers for the clergy to use.
Welby said last month that he wouldn’t personally bless any same-sex couples because it’s his job to unify the 85 million members of the Anglican Communion around the world. Welby is the spiritual leader of both the Church of England and the global Anglican church of which it is a member.
Still, he celebrated Thursday’s decision.
“It has been a long road to get us to this point,” Welby said in a statement issued jointly with the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell. “For the first time, the Church of England will publicly, unreservedly and joyfully welcome same-sex couples in church.”