(Photo: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor)
A gay priest has become the first to defy the Church of England and marry his long-time partner following Britain's legalization of same-sex marriage. A conservative group has warned that there will be a "crisis" for the church if it fails to take disciplinary action.
"There's no doubt that there is pressure within some parts of the church for the church to change its mind on sexuality," said the Rev. Preb Rod Thomas, chairman of the Reform evangelical group, according to The Telegraph on Saturday.
"If there is not clear discipline then it is the equivalent to saying 'we really didn't mean what we said.' It will precipitate a crisis."
Fifty-eight-year-old divorced hospital chaplain Canon Jeremy Pemberton married his long-term partner, 51-year-old Laurence Cunnington, on Saturday, going against the Anglican ban on gay clergy marrying.
"I love this man and I want to be married to him. That's what I want. It is the same as anyone who wants to get married," Pemberton told The Daily Mail on Sunday.
Earlier this year, the House of Bishops of the Church of England reaffirmed marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman, and said it will not be allowing the blessing of same-sex unions.
"The introduction of same-sex marriage in our country is a new reality and has consequences for the life and discipline of the Church of England. We seek to model a distinctive and generous witness to Jesus Christ in our pastoral guidance to the Church at this time which is set out in the Appendix to this letter," the bishops wrote in a letter in February.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said that the Church of England has accepted the new reality of Britain's same-sex marriage law, which became official at the end of March.
He also warned that there would be worldwide consequences if the Church of England changes its teachings on marriage, noting that a number of Christians in Africa have been killed over the issue.
"I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact," Welby said in an interview earlier in April.
He added that if the Church of England was to embrace gay marriages "the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world."
The Rev. Colin Coward, a friend of Pemberton's and the director of pro-LGBT group Changing Attitude, suggested that a number of gay priests will follow the couple's example in the months and years to come.
"The Church of England enters a new era. If the House is pushed into taking punitive action against Jeremy (unlikely since he is a hospital chaplain) or any other gay or lesbian priest who marries, it risks alienating those members of the Church of England, General Synod and the House of Bishops who welcome and affirm LGBTI ministry and relationships and celebrate the gifts of partnered lesbian and gay clergy," Coward wrote in a blog post on Monday.
"Many of us believe the Spirit of Christ is moving in the life of the Church and is moving human hearts and lives into deeper love and faith at a speed way ahead of the Church of England, overtaking the ability of the bishops to process what is happening in God's creation."
He further challenged Welby's warnings about the implications for Anglicans in Africa, should there be a change in teachings on marriage, noting that many LGBT Christians are also targeted across Africa.
Rev. Thomas reflected, however, that those in the Church of England who abide by the traditional understanding of marriage would be unable to accept a "messy compromise" on the issue, which could potentially lead to a split in the church.