Church of England bishops say no to blessings for same-sex marriages

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The Church of England's House of Bishops has rejected the possibility of official blessings for those in same-sex marriages after they become legal in the UK from the end of March.

The legalisation of same-sex marriage does not require Church of England dioceses to perform same sex wedding ceremonies, but the bishops have taken matters a step further, refusing to perform both ceremonies and any form of official blessing for same-sex unions.

In a new set of pastoral guidelines, the House of Bishops reiterated a 2005 Church statement on civil partnerships which said clergy should not provide services of blessing for them.

"The same approach as commended in the 2005 statement should therefore apply to couples who enter same-sex marriage," the latest guidelines state.

"The House [of Bishops] is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry [bishops, priests, or deacons]."

It also states that those who are already ordained should not enter into a same sex marriage.

The recent Pilling Report into the Church's official position on human sexuality stated that "there can be circumstances where a priest... should be free to mark the formation of a permanent same-sex relationship in a public service but should be under no obligation to do so".

The new guidelines reiterated that while no official liturgy or blessing could be provided, the House of Bishops did not want to "interfere with the clergy's pastoral discretion about when more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances".

However there was a stipulation that "any prayer will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church's teaching and their reasons for departing from it".

"Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways."

The new guidelines reaffirmed the Church of England's longstanding position on marriage as a "union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side".

The guidelines were accompanied by a letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York acknowledging the existence of divisions within the Church over the issue of same-sex marriage.

"We are aware that there will be a range of responses across the Church of England to the introduction of same sex marriage," said the Archbishops.

However they were not universally condemning of gay relationships, and referred to the Church of England's response during the consultation period on gay marriage legislation, which states that "the proposition that same sex relationships can embody crucial social virtues is not in dispute".

"Same sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity..., two of the virtues which the Book of Common Prayer uses to commend marriage. The Church of England seeks to see those virtues maximised in society," the consultation response said.

The Reverend Colin Coward, director of the Pro-LGBT Anglican Changing Attitude group, was quoted in The Telegraph saying, "I know of at least one couple, including a priest, who have already booked their wedding and told his bishop that he has got a date booked."

Talking about the issues of internal discipline, he said: "The Church is going to have to confront the reality that clergy couples will be getting married and the question of what kind of action individual bishops are going to take against such people.

"Many inside the Church know perfectly well that significant numbers of bishops already break the guidelines [by ordaining non-celibate gay clergy].... The reality is that dishonesty and hypocrisy is becoming more and more apparent."

The Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverend John Pritchard, said, "As the letter makes clear we aren't changing the long-established understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman, and we expect our clergy to live in a way that is consistent with the Church's teaching."

The Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker said, "While we are clear that the changes in legislation coming into force next month do not, nor should not, by themselves change the doctrine of marriage as set down in the canons and liturgies of the Church, they inevitably give rise to new pastoral situations, to which we need to respond graciously."

The Anglican Suffragan Bishop in Europe, the Right Reverend David Hamid, said on his blog: "I know that the letter and appendix may come as a disappointment to some in our Churches."

He added: "It is important to note that while the Church's doctrine of marriage remains the same, so does our commitment to welcoming all lay people fully into the life of our Church and fellowship, regardless of sexual orientation, civil partnership, or marital status."

Lee Gatiss of the evangelical Church Society, told Christian Today: "I very much welcome the Bishops' statement that it would be inappropriate for those in same-sex marriages to be ordained, or for existing clergy to enter such marriages.

"This is in accord with biblical teaching that homosexual practice is seen by God as sin, along with heterosexual sins such as adultery and extra-marital sex."

However he suggested the Church was not doing enough to enforce its official teaching on marriage, saying he was "concerned that the bishops continue to refuse to exercise proper pastoral discipline". 

"The credibility of this pastoral guidance will, I fear, be very quickly tested. How many clergy got "engaged" to their same-sex partners over the Valentine's weekend?" he said.

"However difficult it is to accept, those who choose to pursue sexual relationships outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage are not living in the path of godliness," he said. 

"We accept such people into our hearts and homes, and many attend our churches. We all struggle and fall short in many ways.

"But it is surely unhelpful to baptise what the Bible calls sin, as if it was not sin. This is merely a recipe for confusion, for everyone, including the couple themselves and their community."

Another evangelical Church of England group, Anglican Mainstream, declared support for the overall direction of the new pastoral guidelines.

In a statement given to Christian Today, Anglican Mainstream said "We are grateful for the assurance that the idea of same sex marriages being solemnized in C of E churches in future is not supported by the Bishops."

"We share the unreserved commitment to the pastoral support and care of homosexual people and the rejection of any victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex"

However Anglican Mainstream had criticisms for the overall tone of the Church of England on these matters, in particular the language used.

"While the document rightly condemns unchristian attitudes towards same sex attracted people in the strongest possible terms, it can only speak of homosexual practice in terms of phrases such as 'at variance with the teaching of the church'.

"There is no mention of the word 'sin', or reference to the seriousness of sexual immorality, nor the Gospel offer of forgiveness through the cross and change through the power of the Spirit.

Use of Christian words such as 'faithful' and 'covenanted' in reference to gay relationships cause confusion as they imply a biblical underpinning which is non existent, and appears to contradict Church teaching which remains opposed to gay marriage and the blessing of such relationships."

Speaking to the overall state of the discussions reflected in these guidelines, Anglican Mainstream said "There is an assumption in the statement of a shared understanding of the concept of 'gay', and that it is a fixed and unalterable category."

This does not reflect the current state of the debate. We remain concerned that the voices of celibate and ex-homosexuals are not being sufficiently heard."

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