While the debate on same-sex marriage in England continues, the United Reformed Church (URC) has taken what is being described as a "historic step" by allowing same-sex civil partnerships on its premises.
The resolution was reached at the General Assembly in Scarborough and will affect all United Reform churches across England and Wales, the New Statesman revealed. While the decision is not binding and separate parishes will have the choice of whether to bless civil partnerships or not, it is expected that many will welcome the news. The 68,000-member church is much smaller than its bigger Roman Catholic Church and Anglican Communion counterparts in the nation, but after an hour-long debate last week it decided to take the step both major denominations oppose.
"We have a long way to go in terms of recognizing and supporting those people in our churches who are in lasting, loving, mature same-sex relationships. This resolution could help those congregations who are already on this journey to reach a new stage in their understanding of how best to support and relate to such couples," said the Rev. Kirsty Thorpe, the URC's previous moderator.
"For many years this church has been hosting services of blessing for those who have entered a civil partnership," explained a URC pastor, Adrian Bulley. "How sad that these couples have had to go through two ceremonies to enable their union to be blessed by God in the context of prayer and worship".
Quakers, Unitarians and Progressive Jewish Synagogues in the United Kingdom already accept same-sex civil partnerships, but the URC is the first mainstream Christian denomination to join the movement that many consider to be in opposition to the traditional definition of marriage.
While same-sex civil partnerships are not considered the same as marriages, it is possible that a step in such a direction will increase the pressure on other churches to reconsider their stances on gay unions and their place in the church.
The British government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, has been pushing for the definition of marriage to be changed to include same-sex couples, but Catholics and Anglicans have stood in firm opposition to such plans.
"Opening marriage to same-sex couples would confer few if any new legal rights on the part of those already in a civil partnership, yet would require multiple changes to law, with the definition of marriage having to change for everyone," the Church of England has stated.