Episcopal Church approves rite for same-sex blessings

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Episcopalians approved a churchwide ceremony Tuesday to bless same-sex couples, the latest decisive step toward accepting homosexuality by a denomination that nine years ago elected the first openly gay bishop.

At the Episcopal General Convention, which is divided into two voting bodies, about 80 percent of the House of Deputies voted to authorize a provisional rite for same-sex unions for the next three years. A day earlier, the House of Bishops approved the rites 111-41 with three abstentions during the church meeting in Indianapolis.

Supporters of the same-sex blessings insisted it was not a marriage ceremony despite any similarities. Called “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” the ceremony includes prayers and an exchange of vows and rings. Same-sex couples must complete counseling before having their unions or civil marriages blessed by the church.

Other mainline Protestant churches have struck down barriers to gay ordination in recent years or allowed individual congregations to celebrate gay or lesbian unions. However, only one major U.S. Protestant group, the United Church of Christ, has endorsed same-sex marriage outright.

In a separate vote Monday, the full Episcopal convention approved new anti-discrimination language for transgendered people that cleared the way for transgendered clergy.

“I believe the Episcopal Church will continue to evolve on the issue of marriage equality and look forward to joining our UCC brothers and sisters in being a headlight instead of taillight on marriage equality,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest and longtime gay advocate in the denomination.

Under the new policy, each Episcopal bishop will decide whether to allow the ceremonies in his or her diocese. A provision dubbed a “conscience clause” bars any penalties for Episcopalians who oppose its use.

Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage, and three more states could do so this year, while 30 states have passed constitutional amendments limiting marriage to unions between a man and a woman.

In 2003, Episcopalians blazed a trail — and caused an uproar — by consecrating New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican world. While Bishop Robinson went on to become a powerful symbol for gay rights, the Anglican Communion began splintering and has continued to do so ever since.

The New York-based Episcopal Church is the U.S. body of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion. Episcopal conservatives responded to Bishop Robinson’s consecration by creating a rival denomination, the Anglican Church in North America, under the guidance of like-minded Anglican leaders overseas. Anglican leaders had asked Episcopalians for a moratorium on electing another gay or lesbian bishop as the communion struggled to stay together. Episcopalians agreed, but three years ago voted to lift the temporary ban.

A spokeswoman for the leader of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, said she would not comment Tuesday.

During the debate Tuesday, opponents argued that adopting an official liturgy amounted to an endorsement of same-sex marriage with no theological justification for doing so. EpiscopalChurch law and the Book of Common Prayer still define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

“It is being seen as a marriage rite even though I was told that is not intended,” said the Rev. Sharon Lewis, a member of the Diocese of Southwest Florida delegation.

The Rev. David Thurlow of the Diocese of South Carolina, which has withdrawn from some councils of the national church in protest of its theological direction, said the church was “marching off not only completely out of step with, but completely out of line with, the faith once delivered to the saints.”

Yet with the departure of many Episcopal conservatives from the denomination, even critics of the resolution acknowledged that they were unlikely to stop the measure.

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