Church of England stance on gay marriage in disarray after vote

LONDON (Reuters) - The Church of England's legislative body on Wednesday voted against a report from bishops that rejected the idea of blessing same-sex marriages, the latest row over an issue that has divided the Church for years. The wider Anglican communion, which has 85 million members worldwide, has been in crisis since 2003 because of arguments over sexuality and gender between liberal member churches in the West and their conservative counterparts, mostly in Africa. But the Church of England, where the Anglican tradition originated, is itself divided, especially over how to deal with same-sex marriages which are legal in Britain. The latest controversy stems from a report issued in January by the House of Bishops, which along with the houses of Clergy and Laity makes up the Church's legislature, known as the synod. The bishops' report re-affirmed the Church teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, while calling for "a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people". It advocated sticking to the status quo in terms of Church law on marriage, while interpreting the law "to permit maximum freedom within it". In practice, this would exclude church blessings for same-sex marriages, angering critics who pointed out that warships, animals and pubs are eligible for blessings. The bishops' report required majority support in each of the three houses to be endorsed by the synod, but the House of Clergy voted against it during a session in London on Wednesday. A small crowd of protesters demonstrated outside the venue where the synod was meeting, holding banners with slogans such as "Proud to be gay, now make me proud to be Christian". The vote left the bishops' carefully worded position on same-sex marriage in disarray. A Church spokeswoman said that while the vote was non-binding, in practice it would make it hard to take the bishops' proposals forward. Days before the vote, a group of 14 retired bishops published an open letter to their successors criticising the report and saying it would cause deep disappointment among lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) people. "Our perception is that while the pain of LGBT people is spoken about in your report, we do not hear its authentic voice," the retired bishops wrote. The Anglican communion last year slapped sanctions on one of its liberal member churches in the United States, the Episcopal Church, for supporting same-sex marriage. (Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Dominic Evans)