Discussions to allow civil partnership ceremonies in Anglican churches appear to have been dropped – at least for the time being.
Equality campaigners believe the postponement reflects an “appalling” reluctance by some in the Church hierarchy to openly debate the issue of same-sex relationships.
But others believe it could reflect a behind the scenes shift at the top of the Church of England which they are convinced could open the way for an historic change in its approach to same-sex relationships by the end of this year.
Last month the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu – a leading equal marriage critic – pointed out that the Church offers blessings for sheep and even trees but not committed same-sex couples, something he said would have to be addressed.
Describing the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill as “an abuse of language” – he also said that unions between gay couples was a “matter which will need to be discussed”.
Colin Coward, director of the pro-gay Anglican campaign group Changing Attitudes said there is a “deep reluctance” by bishops to debate blessings publicly yet.
“I don’t think they have a common position at the moment and I think they don’t feel prepared for a debate,” he said.
But he added that discussions his group had been having suggest there is a “strong movement” in the House of Bishops towards recognising civil partnerships.
He said it was now widely “assumed” that the bishops would address the issue once a commission examining the Church’s teaching on sexuality, chaired by the former civil service mandarin Sir Joseph Pilling, publishes its report.
The Bishop of Buckingham, the Right Reverend Dr Alan Wilson, earlier this year criticised the Church of England’s refusal to allow blessings for civil partnerships, and said that some parishes were ignoring the ban in order to avoid conflict.
Church of England rules prevent priests conducting civil partnership ceremonies or performing formal “blessing” services for same-sex couples.
A report by the Church’s Faith and Order Commission in March urged priests not to treat the issue of recognising civil partnerships as “simply closed”.
Scores of such services take place under the radar across the country every year, usually called services of thanksgiving or dedication to avoid falling foul of the rules.
Liberal priests, who already conduct unofficial dedication and thanksgiving for gay couples, said the report amounted to the first official endorsement for what they do.