Page last updated at 22:52 GMT, Tuesday, 17 June 2008 23:52 UK

What will Church do about 'gay wedding'?

Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

St Bartholomew the Great Church
The service was held at St Bartholomew the Great Church

To all outward appearances, the service of blessing that sealed the partnership of the Reverend Dr David Lord and the Reverend Peter Cowell was a traditional wedding.

The order of service was closely based on the wedding liturgy contained in the Book of Common Prayer, complete with an exchange of vows and rings.

It also contained the rich language of the traditional service, complete with its implicit recognition of the sexual element of marriage.

"With this ring I thee bind, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow."

The service took place at St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield in London - one of the churches used in the filming of Four Weddings and a Funeral - and was conducted by the vicar, the Reverend Dr Martin Dudley.

Stern rebuke

The outcry that has followed what its organisers described as a "holy covenant of love and fidelity" has now extended to the very top of the Church.

Dr Williams and Dr Sentamu may have been so quick to denounce the gay 'wedding' because it was made public at such a critical moment
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of York John Sentamu issued a stern rebuke to the three priests, saying they viewed the blessing with great concern.

They said the Church's teaching on sexuality was well known and "remained current".

They listed some of it, including a controversial Lambeth Conference motion which judges active homosexuality to be incompatible with biblical principles.

The archbishops added: "Those clergy who disagree with the Church's teaching are at liberty to seek to persuade others within the Church of the reasons why they believe, in the light of scripture, tradition and reason that it should be changed.

"But they are not at liberty simply to disregard it."

Dr Williams and Dr Sentamu may have been so quick to denounce the gay "wedding" because it was made public at such a critical moment.

Hundreds of Anglican bishops from around the world are converging on Canterbury next month for the communion's biggest meeting of all - the 10-yearly Lambeth Conference.

The ever-widening split caused by the dispute over homosexuality is likely to haunt the meeting and will be discussed towards its end.

The archbishops do not want to send any sign to the rest of the Anglican communion that the Church of England - the communion's "mother church" - tolerates such elaborate church blessings of homosexual partnerships.

To add to the pressure, traditionalists in the communion are just beginning their own conference in Jordan, followed by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Many of the bishops in Jordan are boycotting the Lambeth Conference in protest at the presence there of bishops who helped ordain the openly gay bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, US, in 2003.

Disciplinary pressure

The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, was quick to announce an investigation into the gay "wedding".

The pressure on him to take disciplinary action has increased with a legal opinion from a senior Church lawyer that the event broke canon, or church, law.

Expert opinion suggests that a single blessing service - even one this closely modelled on a marriage - would be cause for defrocking, the ultimate punishment for a priest
Dr James Behrens, of Lincoln's Inn in London, was commissioned to look into the matter by the traditionalist group Anglican Mainstream.

They have since sent the findings to Bishop Chartres.

Dr Behrens said clergy were allowed to make minor alterations to the wording of services authorised by the Church, but not ones as substantial as were made at St Bartholomew the Great a couple of weeks ago.

He cited the substitution of the word "partner" for "husband" and "wife".

Church law also says that variations must be "reverent and seemly" and not suggest any "departure from the doctrine of the Church".

In Dr Behrens' judgement the blessing service was illegal on this basis too.

Expert opinion suggests that a single blessing service - even one this closely modelled on a marriage - would be cause for defrocking, the ultimate punishment for a priest.

It's unlikely that traditionalists would even push for that.

It's conceivable that there could be a long disciplinary process if it's judged that there's a case to answer for the clergy who took part.

It could just be that Dr Dudley will simply be admonished - told not to carry out such a service again.

Traditionalists are concerned that there should be at least some public sign of official disapproval before bishops arrive for the Lambeth Conference in a month's time.

Otherwise, they fear, many of the visitors will place the Church of England in the same category as the liberal American and Canadian Churches and its credibility will be undermined.


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