In a historic shift in thinking a panel of bishops recommend the Church of England allow special services which will amount to gay marriages in all but name
In principle the Church of England is still committed to the belief that any sex outside a traditional marriage between a man and a woman is a sin
By John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor
11:15AM GMT 28 Nov 2013
The Church of England is poised to offer public blessing services for same-sex couples in a historic shift in teaching.
A long-awaited review of church teaching by a panel of bishops recommends lifting the ban on special services which will amount to weddings in all but name.
Although the Church will continue to opt out of carrying out gay marriages, when they become legal next year, the landmark report recommends allowing priests to conduct public services “to mark the formation of permanent same sex relationships”.
The report repeatedly speaks of the need for the Church to “repent” for the way gay and lesbian people have been treated in the past.
In what will be seen as a radical departure, it also suggests that the Bible is inconclusive on the subject of homosexuality.
The report does not recommend drawing up special liturgies for the blessing service, although it suggests new “guidelines” are drawn up.
Unlike weddings, priests will not have a legal obligation to offer such services and the decision will be left to individual parishes.
The report insists that the Church continues to “abide by its traditional teaching”, but the recommendation undoubtedly represents a fundamental shift in practice.
Opponents have been warning that any attempt to change the church’s position in sexuality would lead to a split which would make the disagreements over women bishops pale into insignificance.
It would also trigger a major rift within the 80 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion.
The review, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, a former civil service mandarin, and including four bishops, was ordered last year in an attempt to resolve years of tension over the Church’s approach to gay worshippers and clergy.
But it was granted a wide remit to explore all aspects of its teaching on human sexuality – an issue which has dogged it for decade on sex.
Although the report itself will not change Church teaching or liturgy – something only the House of Bishops and General Synod can do – its publication marks a landmark moment for Anglicanism.
The debate over gay marriage earlier this year was just the latest in a series of issues exposing growing divisions as liberals and conservatives battle for the soul of the Established Church.
Questions over remarrying divorcees, its approach to cohabitation have plagued the Church for decades.
In principle the Church of England is still committed to the belief that any sex outside a traditional marriage between a man and a woman is a sin.
Any official endorsement of lifestyles outside those limits draws anger from traditionalists who argue that the Church is turning its back on 2,000 years of teaching.
But opponents argue that an apparent obsession with people’s private lives is a distraction from the Church’s core mission to spread the Christian gospel.
In practice its position has shifted dramatically in recent decades and even leading evangelicals have acknowledged a need to accept massive social change.
Last year a new official handbook for vicars on conducting weddings made clear that they should expect most couples wanting to marry to be already living together and probably have children.
The House of Bishops agreed last Christmas that openly gay clerics who are in civil partnerships are now officially allowed to become bishops – as long as they claim to be celibate.
The approach taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, typifies that of the Church in recent years.
An evangelical who once opposed gay couples adopting children, the Archbishop strongly objected to the Government’s introduction of same-sex marriage when it was debated in the Lords.
But only weeks later, he used his first presidential address to the Church’s General Synod, to warn Anglicans of a need to face up to a “revolution” in attitudes to sexuality.
He later said that most young people – including young Christians – think its teaching on gay relationships is “wicked” and has angered traditionalists by inviting the gay rights group Stonewall into church schools to combat homophobic bullying.
The Archbishop of York, who led the Church’s opposition to gay marriage, has himself signalled support for some form of blessing for same-sex relationships.
Speaking in Lords in July, he pointed out that it already offers special prayers and services to bless sheep and even trees but not committed same-sex couples – something he said would have to be addressed.