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'Today is the day the Church of England comes out of the closet'

'Today is the day the Church of England comes out of the closet'
For the first time in history, same-sex partners can receive a blessing to celebrate their
unions -- and Felixstowe hosted one of the first

By Charlotte Lytton
17 December 2023

"I think applause may be appropriate." So began a chorus of clapping at St John the
Baptist's in Felixstowe on Sunday morning, where the usual Eucharist service included a
blessing, for the first time in the Church of England's 489-year history, for same-sex
partners. With the rainbow LGBTQIA+ flag waving outside, Jane Pearse and Catherine
Bond became one of the first couples in England to receive a prayer that would publicly
affirm and celebrate their union. A move made legal at the turn of midnight Saturday --
instead of the usual clink of teacups, the pop of champagne corks punctured the post-
service chatter, with congregants and the women, both vicars, well aware of the
magnitude of the morning's celebration.

"I feel the weight of history on our shoulders, because it's such a historic moment for the
Church of England," Bond, 63, said. Wearing a gold jacket and sparkly silver nail varnish,
she added that she was "excited" -- and indeed surprised -- to have received a glut of
messages of support both locally, and as far afield as Italy and France. "It hadn't dawned
on me, this level of interest," Pearse laughs.

Although same-sex marriage remains forbidden in the Anglican church, last Tuesday it
was announced that clergy would be able to use Prayers of Love and Faith. This came a
decade after the publication of a report commissioned by bishops that recommended the
introduction of "services to mark faithful same-sex relationships".

It's a move that has come after seven years of "listening, learning and discernment" in the
Church of England. During this time a bitter divide has brewed, running so deep as to lead
to repeated calls for Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has publicly backed
standalone same-sex blessing ceremonies, to step down. The fracas is "stretching us to
breaking point," Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, said last month following a
special gathering of the General Synod (the church's ruling body), with many senior
figures left "feeling weary, fearful, confused and even angry about it all".

This week Rev. Canon John Dunnett, the national director of the Church of England Evangelical Council
(CEEC), said in a statement that the organisation "deeply regrets" the new rule change; a
decision that "confirms our belief that a line has been crossed, which we hoped and
prayed would not happen". It has left a "tectonic divide" within the community, the CEEC
said, that "will continue to be destructively present until and unless it is addressed".

Bond admits to having had feelings of "nervousness" ahead of the service, concerned that
protesters might derail the celebration. "But we're really prepared to stand up and be
counted... we accept there are people who don't agree with this situation, and we have to
respect their views. But I think, as Christians, we're clear that the gospel is about love."
And, she points out, "there's more in the Bible about not being a gossip than there is about
homosexuality -- and Jesus himself never said anything about it."

Bond and Pearse got together six years ago, when working in the same benefice (an
ecclesiastical office), and now live in Felixstowe and are both associate priests. They share
a love of rowing (Bond became emotional while embracing friends from their local club,
not typically churchgoers, after the blessing), reading and tennis, with Pearse happily
laying claim to the better backhand. Both have adult children from their prior marriages,
to men. Bond's godson no longer spoke to her as a result of her relationship, she said.

Local support has been bolstered by the Rev Andrew Dotchin, the priest-in-charge, who
led Sunday's service. A member of the Synod, he sees today as an important step towards
"build[ing] a church for a radical new Christian inclusion" -- a journey that began, he says,
with the church's apology to the LGBTQIA+ community for their treatment in January this
year. "We think that it's an 'us and them', without realising that gay and lesbian people are
in the church already," he said of the apparent split driving factions apart.

"Today is wonderful for Jane and Catherine; wonderful for the Church of England -- because today
is the day the Church of England comes out of the closet and says, 'we are who we are, and
we love everybody who's here.'" He acknowledges that "not all of us are on the same page
yet, but I hope and pray that the joy of today's service will enable people to go on to say,
'yeah, that wasn't that difficult, was it?'" Just as the notion of women becoming priests or
bishops was once contested but is now largely accepted, he is hopeful that the matter of
same-sex marriage within the Church of England will go the same way, too.

'We think that it's an 'us and them', without realising that gay and lesbian people are in
the church already,' says Rev Dotchin till, for many campaigners, the Prayers of Love and
Faith don't go far enough, as they fail to give same-sex couples the rights afforded to
heterosexual believers. Julia Johns, 50, who has recently moved to Felixstowe, says she
and her partner "would absolutely love to get married in a church", but that current
regulations are holding them back. Johns says it is "really sad... if you truly
believe that God is the one that created the entire universe, I don't really think
that they're going to be bothered about two women being together."

The Synod is to spend until 2025 debating whether to allow standalone blessings for
same-sex couples; whether gay priests will be allowed to have civil marriages is still being
discussed. Is she hopeful that legislative change might soon come? "There's hope, and
there's realism," Johns says, "and I think I'm a realist. So that's why we have to keep

Pearse is conscious that any forward movement "is still up in the air; it's a process" -- but
both she and Bond will marry legally in the church, if and when rules allow. Bond hopes,
too, that their newly approved show of love over the weekend, along with other same-sex
couples', can be a beacon of hope for the institution's future. "It feels as if what we're
doing today is helping make the church more relevant, and bringing it into the 21st


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