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Church of England apologizes for treatment of LGBT people; Archbishop Welby won't bless gay couples

Church of England
Members of the clergy enter York Minster before a service to consecrate Reverend Libby Lane as the first female bishop in the Church of England, in York, northern England, January 26, 2015. |

Bishops of the Church of England have apologized to the LGBT community for their "rejection and exclusion" within the denomination, saying they are now "welcome and valued" within the church.

The move comes two days after the denomination announced its support for a proposal allowing same-sex couples to receive "God's blessings." The denomination's senior bishop, Justin Welby, said he doesn't plan to offer blessings to same-sex couples at this time. 

The denomination issued the apology Friday ahead of its General Synod's meeting next month in a report titled "Living in Love and Faith: A response from the Bishops of the Church of England about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage."

"We want to apologize for the ways in which the Church of England has treated LGBTQI+ people — both those who worship in our churches and those who do not," the bishops said in a statement accompanying the report, which follows six years of debate over the denomination's position on sexuality.

"For the times we have rejected or excluded you, and those you love, we are deeply sorry. The occasions on which you have received a hostile and homophobic response in our churches are shameful, and for this we repent."

"As we have listened, we have been told time and time again how we have failed LGBTQI+ people," the statement continues. "We have not loved you as God loves you, and that is profoundly wrong. We affirm, publicly and unequivocally, that LGBTQI+ people are welcome and valued: we are all children of God."

The Church of England has also drafted prayers and readings to "offer clergy a variety of flexible ways to affirm and celebrate same-sex couples in church, and will include prayers of dedication, thanksgiving and for God's blessing."

The proposed prayers, bishops said, will be "entirely discretionary," as the denomination's formal teaching in the canons and authorized liturgies remain unchanged — that Holy Matrimony is between one man and one woman for life.

"While there is a range of convictions held by the bishops about this important matter, we have not found sufficient consensus to propose a change in doctrine at the present time," the bishops stated. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury Welby, the denomination's principal leader, said he would refrain from using the prayers himself.

"Because of my pastoral care and responsibility in being a focus of unity for the whole Communion, I will — while being extremely, joyfully celebratory of these new resources — I will not personally use them in order not to compromise that pastoral care," Welby said at a press conference Friday.

Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell said he will offer blessings to same-sex couples but understands Welby's position.

"This is the fullest pastoral provision we can offer at the moment without changing legislation and that would take years anyway," Cottrell said. "Years and years. We can offer this soon, and I thank God for it. I hope it will be well received in our church and in our world."

On Wednesday, Welby said he is "under no illusions that what we are proposing today will appear to go too far for some and not nearly far enough for others."

"[B]ut it is my hope that what we have agreed will be received in a spirit of generosity, seeking the common good."

Sarah Mullally, the bishop of London and chair of the group of bishops tasked with forming the proposal, acknowledged that the process "has been costly and painful for many on all sides."

"We have been moved by what we have heard and seen," she said. "And what has come through very clearly, even though there continues to be disagreement among the bishops and among the wider church on these questions, is a strong desire to continue to share our life together in Christ with all our differences."

Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the British House of Commons, urged the Church of England to change its doctrinal teaching on same-sex marriage last week.

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the conservative advocacy group Christian Concern and former lay member of the General Synod, said in a statement the apology could prove to be a "turning point" and signal the decline of the denomination. 

"Christianity teaches that sexual expression is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman. Any other form of sexual relationships are sexually immoral," Williams said.

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