LONDON - Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby urged unity among Anglicans on Monday as he opened a General Synod meeting set to be dominated by controversy over whether to allow priests to marry same-sex couples.
The Church of England announced last month that it would not change its rules to let priests wed same-sex couples, following nearly six years of internal debate.
Couples will instead be able to receive "thanks" and "God's blessing" in a church for their civil marriage or civil partnership, a move that has drawn criticism from both those who support and oppose same-sex marriage.
The four-day General Synod -- the Church of England's elected governing body, which meets two or three times a year to decide on doctrine and policy -- will debate the issue on Wednesday.
Welby, who has said he is "extremely joyful" about the plans for blessings, told the hundreds of lay Anglicans, clergy and bishops in attendance that he acknowledged their "deep and passionately held differences".
"But let us not fall into caricaturing those among us who don't agree with us, as being those who are trying to construct their lives away from God," he said. "The evidence is far from that."
Welby argued that the Church of England had not been open enough to the LGBTQ community.
"Where people find it difficult to believe what Christians say about God's great love for them because they have been excluded, or made to conceal their identity... they have not been spoken to in Christian," he said, emphasising the importance of "speaking Christian in word and deed".
"Along the way too many people, especially around sexuality, have heard the words of rejection that human tongues create."
'Hostile and homophobic'
The General Synod appears set to affirm the Church's teaching that Holy Matrimony exists between one man and one woman for life, without voting on the issue.
Yet bishops of the Church also apologised directly to LGBTQ people in a pastoral letter last month for the sometimes "hostile and homophobic response" they have faced in parishes.
"As we have listened, we have been told time and time again how we have failed LGBTQI+ people," the letter added.
The developments follow the church's "Living in Love and Faith" consultation, opened in 2017.
But the world's Anglican community remains heavily split on the issue.
Opposition from the Anglican Communion that makes up the bulk of its congregation is seen as preventing a bigger shift over same-sex marriages.
The Anglican Communion comprises 43 Churches around the world in 165 countries, with around 85 million members.
In a sign of the different stances being adopted, Welby has said he will not personally offer the new blessings to same-sex couples, given that he is the ceremonial head of the Anglican Communion.
But his colleague Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, has pledged to conduct such blessings.