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Denver, Colo., Feb 9, 2023 / 12:27 pm (CNA).
The Church of England’s governing body has voted to bless same-sex couples while leaving unchanged the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman in a move that could nonetheless have global consequences for Christian unity.
“For the first time, the Church of England will publicly, unreservedly, and joyfully welcome same-sex couples in church,” Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell said in a joint statement.
“The church continues to have deep differences on these questions which go to the heart of our human identity,” the archbishops continued. They said they 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.”
Some Anglican leaders objected that the church cannot bless sinful sexual relationships and warned that the vote impairs full unity in the Anglican Communion, while backers of redefining marriage said they would revisit the question in future synods.
The General Synod of the Church of England on Thursday voted by 250 to 181 votes to approve the offering of blessings to same-sex couples in civil marriages.
It narrowly approved an amendment endorsing marriage as only between a man and a woman. By a margin of 52% to 45%, the synod defeated a proposed amendment demanding a vote on a proposal to recognize same-sex unions as marriages within two years, the U.K. newspaper The Guardian reported.
While the synod’s bishops, clergy, and laity all voted to pass the measure, the vote among Church of England bishops was especially lopsided. They voted in favor of the measure 36 to 4, with two abstentions.
The move drew criticism from the Church of England Evangelical Council, which characterized it as a “lose-lose” position that would demoralize orthodox believers while not appeasing advocates of the redefinition of marriage.
“We are deeply saddened and profoundly grieved that General Synod has given a ‘green light’ to the proposals put forward by the House of Bishops,” the council said. “The Church of England now appears set on a course of action that rejects our historic and biblical understanding of sex and marriage, by departing from the apostolic faith we are called to uphold.”
The Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches, representing more than 20 provinces of the Anglican Communion, said it “deeply regrets” the decision, charging that it “goes against the overwhelming mind of the Anglican Communion.” It was skeptical of the claim that doctrine had not changed, citing the principle that “Anglican liturgy expresses its doctrine.”
“The church cannot ‘bless’ in God’s name the union of same-sex partnered individuals, much less sexual relationships between same-sex persons which in God’s Word he declares to be sinful,” the global Anglican group said.
The fellowship said the actions of the archbishop of Canterbury in the vote caused it “to question his fitness to lead what is still a largely orthodox worldwide Communion.”
With great sadness, the group said “the Church of England has now joined those provinces with which communion is impaired.”
Anglican Bishop Steven Croft of Oxford, who supports redefining marriage to include same-sex unions, said the vote was a “significant and historic step.”
“Same-sex couples will become much more visible and their relationships will be celebrated publicly and that, I think, will continue to change attitudes within the life of the church,” he said. He characterized the amendment on the doctrine of marriage as “important to give some reassurance to those who are more conservative” but said the church would not stop revisiting the question.
Other backers of redefining marriage were less enthusiastic. Nigel Pietroni, the chair of the Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England, said the vote fell short of their goal of “radical inclusion” but was a “small step forward.”
The Church of England synod also voted to welcome a review of a ban on clergy contracting same-sex civil marriages and a review of a celibacy requirement for clergy in same-sex relationships. It voted to “lament and repent” of failures to welcome those who identify as LGBTQ+ and for the harm they experienced and continue to experience in churches.
The Anglican Communion was significantly fractured in 2003 when the U.S.-based Episcopal Church voted to ordain as a bishop V. Gene Robinson, a gay man in a same-sex relationship.
Some Catholic leaders, especially in Western Europe, have pushed for the blessing of same-sex couples.
With the assent of Pope Francis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on March 15, 2021, issued a response to a question on the blessings of same-sex unions. The Catholic Church does not have the power to bless same-sex unions, the Vatican body ruled. Though it recognized the “sincere desire to welcome and accompany homosexual persons,” it explained that God “does not and cannot bless sin.”