Church of England faces threat of split over stance on gay couples

By Muvija M

LONDON (Reuters) - An alliance of church leaders threatened to split from the Church of England over plans to let gay couples hold standalone services in churches, saying it would be a departure from the institution's teaching on marriage.

In a letter to the two senior-most bishops of the Church, the dissenting group said the plans were "clearly contrary" to its own doctrine affirming that marriage is between a man and a woman.

The Church, which does not allow same-sex marriages in its 16,000 churches, crossed a milestone in 2022 when it decided to let priests bless same-sex couples. Those blessings are permitted only as part of regular services open to the public, not as standalone services, as allowed for weddings.

A proposal due to be discussed at an upcoming synod next month would allow standalone services for same sex couples on a trial basis. These would not count as marriages, but conservatives say they would still go too far.

"If the further departure from the Church’s doctrine ... does go ahead, we will have no choice but rapidly to establish what would in effect be a new de facto 'parallel Province' within the Church of England," the alliance, made up of leaders from different networks backed by over 2,000 clergy, said.

The group added it would not be leaving the Church or the Anglican Communion but would seek "pastoral oversight from bishops who remain faithful to orthodox teaching on marriage and sexuality".

On Wednesday, 11 Church of England bishops said they would not be able to support the proposals for standalone services.

"We are painfully conscious of the considerable toll that that journey is taking on many of our churches, and especially our LGBTQI+ and same-sex attracted sisters and brothers," the bishops said.

"We ... do not believe that the proposals will protect our unity in mission to the nation or our partnerships within the wider Church."

The Church, central to the wider Anglican communion of 85 million people across 165 countries, did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. Stonewall, an LGBT rights advocacy group which has long criticised the Church for rejecting same-sex marriage, also did not immediately respond.

Papers containing proposals for the Synod's July 5-9 gathering said prayers meant to be used for same-sex blessing services did not "seek to simulate marriage".

"The materials contained ... are not a celebration of a couple’s civil same-sex marriage. They are for praying with and for two people who love one another and who wish to give thanks for and mark that love in faith before God," the papers said.

(Reporting by Muvija M; Editing by Peter Graff)