Methodist leaders vote to bless gay couples

London, England - The Methodist church yesterday became the first big Christian denomination in Britain to offer the prospect of blessings services for same-sex couples.

Although adamant that such services would not be regarded by the church as marriages, officials admitted that they could well be seen as such by the couples themselves and by the wider society.

In stark contrast to the Anglican communion, which is tearing itself apart over its attitude towards homosexuality, the annual Methodist conference voted unanimously to continue its "pilgrimage of faith" towards gay people.

There are 300,000 Methodists in Britain, making it the country's third largest denomination.

Speaker after speaker affirmed the positive contribution of gay people, including in church offices over recent years. Only one speaker warned that the church was moving away from its Biblical basis.

The conference voted for its faith and order committee to research guidelines to offer ministers on how to respond to requests to conduct prayers or services of blessing for same-sex couples, in the light of the government's legislation on civil partnerships.

The committee's convener, the Rev Jonathan Kerry, said afterwards that the guidance would be published by the autumn, in time for the introduction of the legislation later in the year.

He said: "People are saying if we register civil partnerships, can we have prayers or services, is there something we can do in the church? It would be OK in certain circumstances."

One speaker, Ken Holdsworth, of Crewkerne, Somerset, spoke of elderly gay couples in his church's congregation whose presence had not upset other worshippers. "We need to get on with blessings," he said.

In a day of decisions that could fundamentally alter Methodism and its relations with other churches, particularly the Church of England, representatives attending the conference, in Torquay, also voted to begin consultations about creating the first Methodist bishops in Britain.

The move may help to align the denomination more closely with the Anglicans, with whom there have been discussions about unity, though its decision on same-sex blessings will undoubtedly cause consternation in the Church of England.