The policy shift comes after six years of consultations on the issue within the church, which also apologized for its treatment of L.G.B.T.Q. people.
The Church of England apologized for its past treatment of L.G.B.T.Q. people on Friday, but said it would continue its practice of not allowing same-sex marriages in church, a reflection of a delicate balancing act that has once again highlighted stark divisions in the nearly 500-year-old institution.
Instead of backing same-sex unions, the church said it would offer clergy members new ways to “affirm and celebrate same-sex couples,” like prayers for “God’s blessing on the couple in church following a civil marriage or partnership.”
The policy shift, endorsed by bishops this week and outlined in a report released Friday, was seen by some as a mark of progress. But the report made clear that the blessings are not mandated and would be voluntary for clergy.
The apology, also contained in the report, said: “For the times we have rejected or excluded you, and those you love, we are deeply sorry. The occasions on which you have received a hostile and homophobic response in our churches are shameful and for this we repent.”
It continued, “We have not loved you as God loves you, and that is profoundly wrong.”
The planned blessings are the culmination of six years of consultations on same-sex marriage within the church. The proposal will be presented next month to the Church of England’s governing body, the General Synod, in the hope that it can curb decades of “damaging and bitter” division on the issue, the report said.
The Church of England is the original church in the global Anglican Communion, which now claims tens of millions of members in 165 countries. The communion has been engaged in a bitter debate over how to treat its L.G.B.T.Q. members since 2003, when the American branch — the Episcopal Church — consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. The communion has struggled to avoid schism as some provinces have moved to welcome L.G.B.T.Q. members and celebrate their relationships, while others — mostly in the global South — have remained vehemently opposed.
“I am under no illusions that what we are proposing today will appear to go too far for some and not nearly far enough for others,” said Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury and religious leader of the church, in a statement earlier this week. “But it is my hope that what we have agreed will be received in a spirit of generosity, seeking the common good.”
Mr. Welby said on Friday that he would not be blessing same-sex couples.
“Because of my pastoral care and responsibility and being a focus of unity for the whole communion I will, while being extremely joyfully celebratory of these new resources, I will not personally use them in order not to compromise that pastoral care,” Mr. Welby said at a news conference in London.
For gay Anglican priests who have left the Church of England because of their sexuality, the proposals and apology were welcoming signs, but still insufficient.
“It’s always good to have an apology, however in Christian terms, repentance for things that we’ve done in the past has to be followed by a change in behavior,” said Andrew Foreshew-Cain, the chaplain of Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University. “They are apologizing for rejection and exclusion whilst at the same time still rejecting our relationships and excluding us from marriage.”
Mr. Foreshew-Cain made headlines in 2014 by becoming the first Anglican vicar to enter into a same-sex marriage. He said he had been excluded from the Church of England ever since. Actions speak louder than words, he said, and the plan outlined on Friday was not enough: “It’s a big step forward, but it’s not marriage equality.”
“This is the issue of today” he added. “Forty years ago, it was the ordination of women that was causing division. This is just the latest iteration of the church’s struggles to accommodate with a changed world.”