'None of us seriously imagines that the voice of a bishop coming over the radio would compel cohabitees to leap from their live-in lovers' arms and recognise their sinfulness,' Christine McMullen, a teacher from Derbyshire, said.
The background to the debate, on a private member's motion, was the fact that anything up to 60 per cent of couples presenting themselves for marriage now give the vicar the same address. And it is legally almost impossible for vicars, no matter what they believe, to refuse to marry a couple if neither is divorced.
Some churches, the synod heard, demand a public statement of repentance from cohabiting couples who present themselves for marriage. Canon Michael Walker, the proposer of the motion, quoted an example in which the wedding service included the phrase: 'God's good law about marriage . . . is that a wedding should be the beginning of sexual union and of life together. Jack and Jill have accepted that they have done wrong in this and have agreed that I should tell you so. They have asked God's forgiveness.'
Gerald O'Brien, a marketing manager from Essex, said he found nothing wrong in this: 'The Church of England should not be afraid to call sin sin. Cohabiting couples wanted to have sex together or, perhaps more accurately, Jack wanted to have sex with Jill.'
However, the overwhelming majority of speakers were anxious that the Church should be welcoming when people came to be married. The Rev David Ison said: 'It is wholly wrong of us to condemn those who want to make their relationship right.'
As the debate progressed, it gained an unusual quality of anguished sincerity since many of the speakers themselves had children who were or had been cohabiting. 'This is a great cause of a sense of guilt and of failure to the parents, but not to the children,' one speaker, Diane Johnson, pointed out.
One leading evangelical confided before the debate that two of his children were living in sin, but this did not worry him nearly as much as it would if the couples were to split up, he said. The essence of marriage was not in its public recognition in a church.