Head of US Episcopal Diocese Enflames Anglican Divisions by Granting Same-Sex Blessings

The controversial head of the Diocese of Connecticut has enflamed the divisions within the Anglican Communion this week, after he announced that Episcopal Church priests in the diocese may give pastoral blessings to same-sex unions in church ceremonies.

The announcement has been even more controversial as it reverses a long-standing policy in the diocese, and is sure to anger conservative Christian groups.

Bishop Andrew Smith's decision will not allow Episcopal clergy to officiate at civil union ceremonies but will permit priests, through a blessing ceremony in the church, to acknowledge gay and lesbian couples who have had a civil union granted by the state authorities.

Smith said in a speech at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford at the diocese's two-day annual convention that ended Saturday, "At the heart of the matter is whether we as a Church will welcome and embrace, serve with and care for and bless persons who are homosexual and partnered as cherished and fully accepted members of the body of Christ. I believe it is right to change our current policy, which prohibits our clergy from blessing same-sex relationships."

The Anglican Communion has been facing a near-schism over the past few years as tensions continue to rise over those that follow the traditionally recognised Biblical doctrine that homosexuality is a sin. However, very apparent long-lying divisions on the issue within the Church were been revealed following the ordination of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in Anglicanism's history in 2003.

Smith said he acted because Connecticut now recognises civil unions, which became law last year, and that there has been no movement on the issue at the national level of the Episcopal Church.

"What I have permitted is a pastoral ministry of blessing, which does not mimic a wedding ceremony," Smith said in an interview after the convention, The Hartford Courant reported Sunday.

"I felt the time had come for the church to say 'Yes' since there has been no movement on the question that was emerging. And, knowing many faithful gay and lesbian folks are leading lives seeking to serve Christ, I felt that now is the time I move to say 'Yes'."

Other church leaders, however, were not supportive of Smith's decision.

The Rev. Christopher Leighton, rector at St. Paul's Church in Darien, called Smith a "perpetrator of false teaching".

He described the decision as "defiant of Scripture and worldwide Christianity".

Rev Leighton is one of five priests who have been in a theological battle with Smith since his 2003 vote where he offered his full support to the consecration of Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire.