Clergy for the Church of England should be able to offer services for same sex relationships, according to a report prepared by the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality. The report adds that specific wording for the services would not be required, though it adds that members of the clergy could not solemnise same sex marriages without a change in the law.
The proposal was welcomed by gay rights campaigners but the Archbishops of Canterbury and York warned that this was "not a new policy statement from the Church of England". The study, commissioned by the House of Bishops in January last year, and chaired by retired civil servant Sir Joseph Pilling, considered homophobia, evidence from science, from scripture and from theologians. Members of the group also met a number of gay and lesbian people to listen to their experiences and insights.
Its 18 recommendations include that they believe there can be circumstances where a priest, with the agreement of the relevant Church Council, 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. It adds: "Some of us do not believe that this can be extended to same sex marriage."
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The report recommends that such public services would be of the nature of a "pastoral accommodation" so the Church should not authorise a formal liturgy for this purpose. The House of Bishops should consider whether guidance should be issued. The report also calls the whole Church "to real repentance for the lack of welcome and acceptance extended to homosexual people in the past, and to demonstrate the unconditional acceptance and love of God in Christ for all people".
Three recommendations look at the report's proposal for 'facilitated conversations', across the Church and in dialogue with the Anglican Communion and other churches, so Christians who disagree deeply about the meaning of scripture on questions of sexuality should understand each other's concerns more clearly.
Further recommendations call on the Church to combat homophobia whenever and wherever it is found. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Most Rev Justin Welby and Dr John Sentamu, said in a statement: "This is a substantial document proposing a process of facilitated conversations in the Church of England over a period of perhaps two years. The document offers findings and recommendations to form part of that process of facilitated conversations. It is not a new policy statement from the Church of England.
"The House of Bishops will be meeting next month and the College of Bishops the following month to consider the report and decide how such a process might best be shaped. In view of the interest in the report we have decided that it should be published now, without delay." They added that Sir Joseph had said disagreements among members of the group were explored "in the warmth of a shared faith".
They said: "Our prayer is that the process of reflection that will now be needed in the Church of England, shaped by the House of Bishops and the College, will be characterised by a similar spirit." Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity, said: "Any step forward, however modest, by the Church of England should be regarded as a prayer answered. However it does seem somewhat unchristian that gay people are now being told their long term relationships might at last be celebrated in a CofE church, but the Church will provide no guidance on the liturgy to be used."