WINNIPEG, Canada - Canadian Anglicans failed by the narrowest of margins last night to agree to allow their churches to bless the committed relationships of same-sex couples.
In a tense vote after nearly two days of debate at the church's synod in Winnipeg, lay and clergy members voted in favour of a motion that would have allowed dioceses in Canada officially to authorise blessings. But the church's bishops voted against the move by 21 votes to 19, meaning that the motion failed, because it needed to be passed by all three groups.
There were warnings last night that some dioceses might press ahead anyway to authorise such services. Canada is one of the few countries that allows gay couples to marry.
The incoming primate of the Canadian church, Archbishop-elect Fred Hiltz, who had voted in favour of the move, said: "We have a very divided church. There will be many people who are very disappointed."
The vote came hours after the 300 delegates attending the church's three-yearly synod earlier took a significant step towards endorsing gay partnerships by saying they did not believe that they were in conflict with core church doctrine.
The debates saw repeated attempts by Canadian conservatives to delay such moves, or to change the size of the majority required under church rules to pass the motions, which were headed off.
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The bishops last night nevertheless reissued a statement saying: "While not all bishops can conceive of condoning or blessing same-sex unions, we believe it is not only appropriate but a Gospel imperative to pray with the whole people of God, no matter their circumstances ... to refuse to pray with any person is to suggest God is not with them."
The outcome of the blessings vote, despite its close margin, will be welcomed at Lambeth Palace, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has been struggling to hold the communion together in the face of opposition particularly among developing world church leaders to any accommodation with same-sex partnerships. They and many evangelicals in western churches hold that gay partnerships are sinful, unbiblical and, therefore, will always be against church doctrine.
The sister US Episcopal Church is already facing a deadline of the end of September to comply with communion demands that it should not authorise same-sex blessings or elect gay clergy and bishops and that it should set up a separate church structure for conservative parishes. It has so far refused to do so.
At the Canadian synod, speakers from both sides argued passionately either that the church would be condoning sin if it recognised gay partnerships, or that it was time to affirm them.
Some clergy in Canada's cities, such as Toronto, where the demand has been strongest, may defy the church and conduct such services clandestinely anyway, as many clergy already do in Britain and the US. One Canadian diocese, New Westminster in Vancouver, authorised gay blessings services four years ago, the first in the world to do so.
A Toronto priest, Andrew Asbil, who said 30% of his congregation were gay, urged the synod to vote in favour: "God is calling us to move. The time is coming and it is now. We don't need more time."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007