A Church of Ireland bishop has voiced his support for the introduction of civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples for the first time.

The Bishop of Cork, Dr. Paul Colton, said he was hopeful the church would one day recognise same-sex marriages in religious ceremonies.

In an interview with BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence programme yesterday (Sun), he said he acknowledged the "great hurt and terrible damage" that has been caused to gay and lesbian people by institutional religion over the years.

And he said a debate among religious leaders was long overdue, as the church's teachings are perceived as part of the problem facing same-sex couples.

He said: "I certainly support civil same-sex marriage. I also recognise the Church of Ireland's definition of marriage is for itself and I adhere to that discipline."

But he was also critical of his Church's conservative stance, pointing out that "political events have taken over" and that "the events in society are moving very rapidly and the church is not at all at pace with the events".

He said the last time Church leaders had addressed the issue was almost two years ago in an internal resolution about marriage.

And he insisted that not everyone "must be required" to take the Church of Ireland's current view of marriage.

Bishop Colton had previously made public comments about the issue last week at the launch of Cork LGBT Awareness Week, when he called for "unqualified equality" for gay and lesbian couples.

His comments were welcomed by the Church of Ireland's LGBT affirming group, Changing Attitude Ireland, according to The Irish Times.

Its chairman Dr. Richard O'Leary said: "The bishop's acknowledgement of the hurt that the church has inflicted on its gay and lesbian members is great appreciated, especially as it comes on the day we are holding services to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia."

And in yesterday's radio interview, Dr. Colton went further when he called for a debate in the church about the nature of marriage with a view ultimately to blessings for same-sex couples following civil unions, "if not to their marriage in church".

The Journal reports that he described the church as having been "caught off-guard by rapid development in society" and said the topic has the Church of Ireland "utterly divided".

He said the focus should be on "common humanity" and not talking about people as if "they are something different and something other".

He added: "It's a very divisive debate, it's something we're going to have to work through.

"Whether the Church likes it or not, we must figure out how we must minister pastorally to these people."

Successive polls have indicated that Irish people are likely to back the introduction of same-sex marriage in next year's referendum, with about 70 per cent in favour.

But Ireland still lags behind much of Europe in terms of legal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Europe, according to new findings.

Ireland is now 22nd out of the 49 countries of Europe on the annual International Lesbian and Gay Association - Europe map, dropping from 17th last year.