The Church of England has approved blessings for gay couples for the first time.
In a historic vote, the General Synod, the Church’s legislative body, voted to officially recognise same-sex couples on Thursday.
The vote was passed in all three houses of Synod. Bishops voted for it by 36 to four, with two abstentions, while clergy voted for it by 111 to 85, with three abstentions. The house of laity approved it 103 to 92, with five abstentions.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, said in a joint statement: “It has been a long road to get us to this point.
“For the first time, the Church of England will publicly, unreservedly and joyfully welcome same-sex couples in church. The Church continues to have deep differences on these questions which go to the heart of our human identity.
“As archbishops, we are committed to respecting the conscience of those for whom this goes too far and to ensure that they have all the reassurances they need in order to maintain the unity of the Church as this conversation continues.
“We hope that today’s thoughtful, prayerful debate marks a new beginning for the Church as we seek a way forward, listening to each other and most of all to God. Above all we continue to pray, as Jesus himself prayed, for the unity of his church and that we would love one another.”
Following the landmark vote, Sarah Mullally, the Bishop of London, who led the debate and chairs the group that oversaw the development of the proposals, said: “This is a moment of hope for the Church.”
The momentous shift in church orthodoxy was welcomed by the Archbishop of York, who said he had been “profoundly moved” by two days of highly charged debate from all sides.
He told Synod same-sex couples “could now come to church and have that relationship acknowledged, celebrated and the couple receive a blessing” in a move that will be optional for priests.
The Archbishop added: “We care so much for the unity of God’s church, but for that unity to be maintained there has to be reassurance that I am as much a part of the body of Christ as you.”
The vote comes after bishops rejected calls to allow same-sex marriages in churches at a meeting in January, following six years of debate and consultation. Instead, they agreed to offer blessings after a civil partnership or marriage, known as Prayers of Love and Faith.
The decision prompted backlash from equality campaigners, some of whom accused the church of discrimination, with the split between liberals and conservatives among the Church hierarchy laid bare in the past 24 hours.
With 28 amendments tabled in a highly-charged debate spanning eight hours and involving speeches from dozens of priests, layman and bishops, the vote on blessings proposal was delayed on Wednesday night until Thursday morning.
It saw the Archbishop of Canterbury fight back tears at one point, while gay members made passionate speeches for the Church to “love them back” and stop “holding us to ransom”.
The Church closed the door to same-sex marriage on Thursday, with Synod members deciding to reject two attempts to bring a vote on this before them either in July 2023 or within the next two years.
But opinion was bitterly divided, with the margin as close as 197 Synod members – 45 per cent – backing a gay marriage vote and 227 – 55 per cent – against it, plus abstentions.
Traditionalists secured a victory by inserting a clause into the approved blessings motion “not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage”, and “should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure” from this doctrine, that marriage is between a man and a woman.
This clause was passed by 220 Synod members, with 205 opposed and 11 abstentions.
At one point Synod erupted into a deafening round of applause for a lay member who attacked bishops for opposing a same-sex marriage vote and told them to “pay attention to their power”.
Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, even claimed gay marriage would represent “a new imperialism” to poor countries in the Anglican Communion.
On Wednesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury made an impassioned speech as he vowed not to be told what to do by MPs over blessings for same-sex couples.
He was rebuking MPs who have been discussing private members’ Bills requiring the Church to go further, which also prompted a warning from MP Andrew Selous who, as Second Church Estates Commissioner, acts as the go-between for the Synod and Parliament.
The Archbishop told the Synod that this “would infringe on the settled principles of religious freedom”.
In a sign of the magnitude of the plan, the Most Rev Welby tearfully warned of the risk of “people who will die, women who will be raped, children who will be tortured” in anti-gay countries around the Anglican Communion if the blessings are brought in.
Church of England bishops also agreed last month to apologise to LGBTQI+ worshippers for the “rejection, exclusion and hostility” they have suffered.
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