The bishop is careful not to say that these unions would be marriages or that the clergy should enter into them. But he writes in his recently published book, Why God?: "I am in favour of strengthening the social support for gay people to have sustained, faithful and loving relationships by legal agreement and by the prayerful support of the church."
Bishop Thompson, who is seen as being on the liberal wing of the Church of England, said yesterday: "One of the things that helps people towards fidelity in life is proper recognition by society. I don't believe that recognition can be marriage; but there ought to be a recognition of jointly held property in order that people will have things that bind them together."
His proposals come in a book he has written to persuade intelligent agnostics in their twenties, like his own two children, that the Christian faith is worth taking seriously.
He argues that cohabitation or informal commitment lacks the long-term dimensions of marriage, but that Christians cannot condemn it out of hand. "Although there are many who would like ethics to stand still where the Bible stands in every particular, this is neither possible nor desirable."
Lambeth Palace would not comment on Bishop Thompson's suggestions. The Vatican has repeatedly condemned all attempts to recognise homosexual relationships. Last Thursday, Pope John Paul II said that gay marriages "threaten society at its very foundations and threatens the future".
However, the Rev Richard Kirker, chairman of the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement, criticised Bishop Thompson for not going far enough:
"This is a step in the right direction. But it is completely ludicrous to exclude the clergy from such occasions, though I suppose they might be called upon to perform these ceremonies."
The movement, which celebrated its 20th anniversary with a controversial service in Southwark Cathedral last month, maintains a register of clergy prepared to perform services of blessing for homosexual unions, though, like the bishop, it is careful not to call them marriages.
Dr David Holloway, of Reform, the evangelical group which protested loudest against last month's service in Southwark Cathedral, said: "Bishop Thompson is a walking disaster in every respect both for the culture and for the church. Looking at it as a citizen, I think it is very important that we resist here.
"What we need in society is a strengthening of the norms of the marriage, which has to come about through cultural pressure."
"Marriage as it has developed is not biologically natural - to keep a father in a committed relationship you need a whole lot of other constraints," Dr Holloway said. "The gay issue is the motor for the whole programme of destabilising the sexual culture, and the effects of that on children are disastrous."
Even moderate traditionalists like the Archdeacon of York, the Ven George Austin, were shocked by the Bishop's proposal.
"The traditional position of the Church has been that these people should keep it in their trousers. The Bishop of Bath and Wells appears to believe they should keep it in each others" the Archdeacon said yesterday.Reuse content