In a letter published today, over a hundred clergy from the Diocese of London have asked the Church of England to let individual priests be free to conduct civil partnership ceremonies for gay couples if they so wish.

The letter comes ahead of the General Synod meeting next week, at which the clergymen have requested acknowledgement of the “growing number of clergy” in London who feel that whether to conduct the ceremonies is “a matter for the conscience” for priests.

The London priests have asked the Synod to reject a blanket ban in favour of a more permissive stance.

As published in the Times today, the letter reads: “We, the undersigned, believe that on the issue of holding civil partnership ceremonies in Church of England churches incumbents / priests in charge should be accorded the same rights as they enjoy at present in the matter of officiating at the marriage of divorced couples in church.

“Namely, that this should be a matter for the individual conscience of the incumbent / priest in charge.”

The Church confirmed last year that no religious premises “may become ‘approved premises’ for the registration of civil partnerships without there having been a formal decision by the General Synod to that effect.”

Rev. Preb. Dr. Brian Leathard, one of the letter’s writers, told The Times: “Our motivation in sending this letter is pastoral. For those of us at the front line, there is no sense of hiding behind a blanket ban on holding civil partnership ceremonies in Church of England churches.

“More and more people are coming to us, and feel that we are turning them away without actually being able to hear their story. They have a genuine desire for the Church’s fullest ministry, for us to bless their loving relationships.”

The regulations which allow civil partnerships to take place in religious buildings came into force at the end of last year after last-minute political skirmishes at Westminster were overcome.

The Church of England’s own lawyers dismissed fears that churches would be obliged to conduct gay civil ceremonies if they wanted to hold weddings.

Of London’s 470 stipendiary, or paid, priests, 120 had signed the letter today.

In December, human rights campaigner and coordinator of the Equal Love campaign Peter Tatchell told PinkNews.co.uk: “I urge individual priests and their congregations to defy this harsh, intolerant ruling.

“They should go ahead with same-sex civil partnerships, if they want to. This autocratic decision should be defied. It doesn’t deserve respect or compliance.

“Many grassroots Anglicans reject this homophobic ruling by the church leadership. They support hosting same-sex civil partnerships in religious premises. The Church of England top brass is out of touch.”

The second-highest clergyman in the UK, Archbishop of York John Sentamu provoked criticism at the weekend for his views opposing gay marriage.

He said: “Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.

“I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.”

A protest followed at his cathedral, York Minster, yesterday.