The Methodist Church in the UK is at a "watershed" moment as it considers whether to change its traditional position on marriage, evangelicals have said.
British Methodists gathering for their annual Conference over the next week are being asked to receive 'God in Love Unites Us', a report produced by the Marriage and Relationships Task Group recommending that ministers be allowed to conduct same-sex wedding ceremonies.
The recommendations are radical in that they also suggest that relationships other than marriage can be recognised by the Church and even blessed in chapels, and that liturgy should be drawn up to mark the end of a marriage for couples who divorce.
"Reflecting on this matter, the Task Group urges the Conference to affirm in due course those who enter mixed-sex civil partnerships, just as it has affirmed those who enter same-sex civil partnerships," the report states.
"Where it is appropriate, we would then welcome it if the relationship that has led a couple to enter a partnership were to strengthen further and bring them to seek marriage as the Church understands it.
"That said, where couples are open and receptive to the possibility of discerning God's love present in what has brought them to form their partnership, and where real pastoral need exists for not simply offering the couple an opportunity to marry in church, we believe it would be appropriate for the Church to offer thanks for and bless such partnerships on its premises.
"This would require developing and offering appropriate forms of prayer and orders of service."
The current Methodist Church position on marriage is set out in Standing Order 011A (1), which states: "The Methodist Church believes that marriage is a gift of God and that it is God's intention that a marriage should be a life-long union in body, mind and spirit of one man and one woman."
The new definition would change "one man and one woman" to state "two people".
The recommendations have been strongly opposed by evangelicals who are calling upon the Church to stay faithful to the traditional position on marriage.
Methodist Evangelicals Together (MET) said that the proposals reflect a departure from the traditional understanding of marriage as the only God-given place for sexual intimacy and effectively abandon the requirement that single people remain celibate before marriage.
The report from the task group "fails to listen well to the Bible, to tradition, and to experience", and "does not offer a faithful response to God's call", they continued.
"The report represents a watershed moment in the life of the Methodist Church in Britain," MET said in its full response to the proposals published this week.
"If its resolutions are adopted, the approach of the Methodist Church to marriage and relationships will be fundamentally changed.
"The Church is called to remain faithful to the biblical teaching on sexuality, and yet the revisions to the Church's view proposed in the report radically change this teaching in a number of ways."
The Methodist Conference opened in Birmingham on Thursday, the same day that the MET network ended a period of prayer and fasting ahead of the debate on 'God in Love Unites Us' next Monday and Wednesday.
If the Conference commends the report, it will be presented to regional synods for more debate from September onwards before a vote next spring and a final vote at Conference 2020.