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British Methodists reject blessing of same-sex relationships

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A UMNS photo by Kathleen LaCamera

Conference representatives vote during the June 23-29 British Methodist Annual Conference.
June 29, 2006

By Kathleen LaCamera*

EDINBURGH, Scotland (UMNS) — The British Methodist Church will not bless same-sex relationships.

That decision followed a lengthy and passionate debate on the floor of the denomination’s annual conference which met June 23-29 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The ruling disappoints those who hoped the church would allow liturgical recognition of same-sex civil partnerships, legal in Britain since December 2004. Civil partnerships give many of the rights and privileges enjoyed by married couples - including survivor benefits, pension rights and paternal responsibility for children - to same-sex partners.

The ruling also puts British Methodist pastors in a similar position to United Methodist clergy in places such as Massachusetts, California, Vermont, New Jersey and Hawaii where the state, in varying degrees, officially recognizes same-sex relationships but the church does not.

Pointing to a lack of consensus among British Methodists, many representatives who voted against the prohibition had hoped the decision would be left up to local congregations and pastors.

The Rev. Barbara Duchars, who leads a church in an area of Blackpool, England, known as the “gay village” says she is not sure “where to go from here.”

“It’s okay if I bless a farmer’s crops or a sailor’s boat. It’s okay if a [same-sex] couple asks me to bless their home, but if they ask me to bless them as a couple, I can’t,” Duchars told United Methodist News Service following the debate.

She and others with similar views feel they will be forced to act against their convictions.

“There are many like me who feel their hands will be tied,” she said. “What [gay and lesbian] people will get from this decision is that they are not welcome in the Methodist Church, that they are not worthy of God’s love or blessing.”

The culmination of two years of denomination-wide reflection, the “Pilgrimage of Faith” report concluded that no blessing ceremony of any kind should be undertaken by Methodist clergy on or off church property.

In addition, clergy should offer only “pastoral prayers” as opposed to “prearranged or formal prayers” to same-sex couples.

It is a distinction, District Chair Keith Davies told the conference, which throws up “inconsistencies” and makes the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable pastoral practice difficult to discern.

During more than three hours of full plenary debate, both those supporting and those opposing the move to prohibit same-sex blessings voiced fears about people who will leave or split from the church over this decision. When commenting on continuing compromise, one representative observed, “we evangelicals don’t have much more to give.”

Others raised concerns that a prohibition of authorized liturgies will force pastors to operate in a “clandestine way.” Still others predicted the blessing of same-sex relationships would compromise ecumenical relationships with other Christian traditions. Despite the diverse range of opinion shared, representatives voted to adopt the report in its entirety.

The Rev. Paul Smith, who is a member of the working party that created the report, says it reflects a very accurate portrait of where the church is now.

“We don’t bless gay partnerships ? we pray with everyone,” explained Smith, who also leads the evangelical Methodist caucus group, Headway. He confessed the working party struggled with the report. “We knew we were talking about people, not theories.”

Fellow working-party member Cassandra Howes said the report is a “best effort” and believes it has helped the church address divisive and contentious issues in a less adversarial way. “We have given the church a process to get here.”

Howes is the former head of OUTCOME, the British Methodist gay and lesbian caucus. She knows some gay and lesbian people will leave the church over this decision.

“It’s crucial to see the bigger picture. It’s a long game,” Howes told United Methodist News Service. “I have to tell people who are hurt and in pain because of these decisions, ?your pain isn’t enough to change things.’ We have to work to change the culture of the church.”

But for some, the possibility that things may change in the future is little consolation for rejection in the present.

“I’m really gutted. This feels like a slap in the face,” commented one gay pastor after the vote. Asking to remain anonymous, he said, “I thought we were going forward, but it seems it’s one step forward and two steps back. Now I only have the letter of the law and a lack of love and grace to offer people. This sends the wrong message.”

Adoption of the report also means that in two years time, the British Methodist Church Council will decide whether to reopen discussion of what is known as the Derby Resolutions.

Created in 1993, the resolutions set out the British Methodist Church position on issues of human sexuality. Often cited for containing contradictory statements that both condemn and support gay and lesbian people, the Derby Resolutions have been formative in many controversial church policy positions regarding sexual practice and identity of both Methodist lay people and clergy.

*LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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