The Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB) has urged its member churches to refrain from conducting same sex marriages.
The Union's Council meeting this week discussed the issue of same-sex marriage in the light of the 2013 legislation making such marriages legal.
A previous response to the change in the law, in May 2014, affirmed "the traditionally accepted Biblical understanding of Christian marriage, as a union between a man and a woman". However, it also said that "we also recognise the freedom of a minister to respond to the wishes of their church, where their conscience permits, without breach of disciplinary guidelines" – implicitly allowing ministers to conduct same-sex marriages if they wish.
The statement from this week's Council meeting "positively re-affirms and commends to our churches our Union's historic Biblical understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and calls them to live in the light of it". It stresses that this understanding has "shaped the rules for accredited Baptist ministers regarding sexuality and the ministry and our rules continue to remain unchanged".
However, it also references the Union's 'Declaration of Principle', which says each local church can make its own decisions "under the guidance of the Holy Spirit".
The statement says the Council "recognises areas of genuine and deep disagreement", concluding: "In the light of this, recognising the costs involved and after careful and prayerful reflection and listening, we humbly urge churches who are considering conducting same-sex marriages to refrain from doing so out of mutual respect. At the same time, we also humbly urge all churches to remain committed to our Union out of mutual respect; trusting that the one who unites us is stronger than what divides us."
The statement from this week's Council effectively re-emphasizes the conservative position of the Union as a whole, acknowledging that most Baptist churches would not wish to conduct same-sex marriages. However, while it urges churches not to breach the consensus, it implicitly acknowledges it cannot prevent them doing so.
In her letter introducing the statement, BUGB general secretary Rev Lynn Green said: "I am aware that many will welcome this statement and I am also acutely aware that for some it will be the cause of great pain and concern."
She said some Baptists "believe that their response to the authority of Christ as revealed in Scripture and discerned in the gathered community, is a desire to be able to offer marriage to those with same sex attraction".
"At Council we recognised that our deeply held convictions over this issue are a source of pain for others and we believe that we need to bear with each other in Christ-like humility, love and grace as we journey on together," she added.
A few Baptist churches have registered for same-sex marriages, among them Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London. Its minister Rev Dr Ruth Gouldbourne told Christian Today: "We recognise the request being made and take seriously our commitment to the Union."
Baptist minister Rev Steve Chalke, who has written and spoken of his support for same-sex marriage, told Christian Today the Oasis Church he pastors had conducted one same-sex blessing but had refrained from conducting others after a request from the Union. After the 2014 statement had confirmed that each church was free to discern the mind of Christ itself, however, the church has pursued the process of registration.
He said: "Walking together in unity is never the same as walking together in uniformity. If unity is based on uniformity it is a very weak form of unity."
He said Baptist ecclesiology, which permits a wide degree of autonomy to the local church, allowed every Baptist congregation to be a "prayerful response to the local community".
"We are working out what it means to serve and follow Christ here," he said.
The issue is potentially divisive to the Union, most of whose churches are theologically conservative. One regional body, the West of England Baptist Association, attempted to stop churches registering for same-sex marriages by warning them that their trustee bodies would not give permission for them to do so. However, while the Union is not in a position to forbid churches to register for same-sex marriages, its recent statement arguably goes as far as it can in backing the conservative position.