An Anglican church has held a homosexual "wedding" for the first time in a move that will deepen the rift between liberals and traditionalists.
Two male priests exchanged vows and rings in a ceremony that was conducted using one of the church's most traditional wedding rites – a decision seen as blasphemous by conservatives.
The ceremony broke Church of England guidelines and was carried out last month in defiance of the Bishop of London, in whose diocese it took place. News of the "wedding" emerged days before a crucial summit of the Anglican Church's conservative bishops and archbishops, who are threatening to split the worldwide Church over the issue of homosexual clergy.
Although some liberal clergy have carried out "blessing ceremonies" for homosexual couples in the past, this is the first time a vicar has performed a "wedding ceremony", using a traditional marriage liturgy, with readings, hymns and a Eucharist.
Both the conservative and liberal wings of the Anglican communion expressed shock last night.
The Most Rev Henry Orombi, the Archbishop of Uganda, said that the ceremony was "blasphemous."
He called on Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to take decisive action if the Anglican Church were not to "disintegrate".
Archbishop Orombi added: "What really shocks me is that this is happening in the Church of England that first brought the Gospel to us.
"The leadership tried to deny that this would happen, but now the truth is out. Our respect for the Church of England will erode unless we see a return to traditional teaching."
The Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, the Bishop of Winchester – a powerful conservative figure – said that the service represented a wedding "in all but name". He said: "Strictly speaking it is not a marriage, but the language is clearly modelled on the marriage service and the occasion is modelled on the marriage service. This clearly flouts Church guidelines and will exacerbate divisions within the Anglican Communion."
The bishop said that it was up to the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, to act, adding that it would become a high-profile test case of Church authority.
"Can we stand for the clear teaching of the Church of England or are we powerless in the face of these actions, which I regret enormously have taken place," he said.
The service was held at St Bartholomew the Great in London – one of England's oldest churches, which featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral – and was conducted by the parish rector, the Rev Martin Dudley.
The couple, the Rev Peter Cowell, who is a cleric at one of the Queen's churches, and the Rev Dr David Lord, had registered their civil partnership before the ceremony.
Mr Dudley opened the service by saying: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God to join these men in a holy covenant of love and fidelity. Such a covenant shows us the mystery of the union between God and God's people and between Christ and the Church." In the vows, Mr Cowell and Dr Lord pledged to "hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part".
Mr Dudley blessed the union with the words: "As David and Jonathan's souls were knit together, so these men may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant betwixt them made."
Leading church figures expressed astonishment at the language and grandeur of the service, claiming that it was a highly provocative act. Although, the use of such a traditional ceremony does not constitute a marriage in the eyes of the law, Church figures on all sides said the event went further than any gay blessing ceremonies that had gone before.
The "marriage" will revive the war over homosexual clergy that has engulfed the Church since 2003 when Gene Robinson was made Bishop of New Hampshire and Jeffrey John, another gay cleric, who was about to become Bishop of Reading, was made to step down.
It is likely to embolden liberal clergy who have been reluctant to offer a full "wedding service" and will open the floodgates to other homosexuals who want a traditional ceremony.
Mr Dudley agreed to conduct the service despite Bishop Chartres warning that Church guidelines – drawn up when the Civil Partnerships Act was introduced – do not allow formal blessings of gay relationships. He argued that it was not a wedding but a blessing and that he was not "offering" blessing services, but responding to personal requests from friends. "I believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, but I see nothing wrong with blessing a couple who want to make a life-long commitment to one another."
A Church of England spokesman said: "Where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances. But the House of Bishops affirmed that clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership."
By Jonathan Wynne-Jones, Religious Affairs Correspondent for the Telegraph.co.uk