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Church of England OKs blessings for same-sex couples, but it still won't marry them

Members of the Church of England General Synod pray ahead of a vote that ultimately approved blessings for same-sex couples in London on Thursday.
Leon Neal
Getty Images
Members of the Church of England General Synod pray ahead of a vote that ultimately approved blessings for same-sex couples in London on Thursday.

After two days of divisive debate, the Church of England voted on Thursday to offer blessings to same-sex couples — but clergy members can opt not to use the prayers, and the church will maintain its ban on same-sex marriage.

The vote came at a meeting of the General Synod, the church's governing body, where the compromise approach was described in a variety of ways: as a breakthrough, a flawed compromise, or an outright mistake.

"I know that what we have proposed as a way forward does not go nearly far enough for many but too far for others," said Bishop of London Sarah Mullally, who has overseen the development of the proposals. But, she added, "This is a moment of hope for the Church."

The text of the adopted motion begins with a stark acknowledgement, as the synod's members said they "lament and repent" the historic harm done to LGBTQI+ people by the Church of England, in its failure to welcome them.

Same-sex couples still won't be able to marry in the church, but they can "come to church after a civil marriage or civil partnership to give thanks, dedicate their relationship to God and receive God's blessing," according to the measure.

The vote by the church's General Synod came after a moment of silence and prayer.

Speakers on all sides of the issue cited a range of theological and social beliefs, in a debate that underlined the difficulties not only of reconciling the human with the divine but also of a centuries-old institution adjusting to shifting social norms — and doing so in a way that reflects the diversity of its members, both within the United Kingdom and beyond.

"The Church continues to have deep differences on these questions which go to the heart of our human identity," the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell said in a joint statement.

By clearing the way to bless same-sex marriage, the Church of England could soon see "racial injustice, disunity and racial segregation" among its parishes, said Busola Sodeinde, a church commissioner in London. She's originally from Leeds but has also lived in Nigeria, where her family has roots.

The synod's decision, Sodeinde warned, could lead to an exodus of churches in Africa and Asia, where views of same-sex unions may be very different from prevailing opinions in the U.K. She urged the church's leaders to work to learn more about those regions' attitudes, with an eye toward another vote this summer.

"The trouble is, there's an arrogance, which I recognize may be unintended," Sodeinde said, "of one-time colonialism, which insists that Western culture is progressive, while dissenting voices in Africa and everywhere else is silenced — we're ignored."

On the other side of the issue was Vicky Brett of Peterborough, in eastern England. Invoking the metaphor of the multitudes who are invited to sit at God's table, Brett asked the synod, "Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list, or interfering with God's welcome?"

"If you think same-sex marriage is wrong," Brett told the gathering, "don't marry someone of the same sex as you."

The church's leaders spoke about the years of work it has taken to reach Thursday's vote. And as they celebrated the moment, they also sought unity.

"For the first time, the Church of England will publicly, unreservedly and joyfully welcome same-sex couples in church," Archbishops Welby and Cottrell said.

They called for a new beginning, and a continuation of thoughtful debate.

"Above all we continue to pray, as Jesus himself prayed, for the unity of his church and that we would love one another," the archbishops said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.