The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has announced that church leaders can bless the unions of same-sex couples as a matter of policy.
The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, whose diocese encompasses Los Angeles County and five other Southern California counties, made the announcement Friday during a diocesan convention in Riverside.
Bruno acted just days after hundreds of conservative Episcopal congregations in North America formed a breakaway church amid a rift that began with the ordination of a gay bishop in New Hampshire five years ago.
Bruno's declaration is not expected to have a major effect on Episcopal churches in Southern California. Many have been blessing gay unions for years. But he has now made it official.
"The practice has not changed. The policy has. . . . It's sort of like 'coming out,' " said the Rev. Susan Russell, a lesbian priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. Russell also is president of Integrity USA, a group representing the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in the Episcopal Church.
The rite endorsed by Bruno also allows the blessing of other relationships, such as those between two senior citizens who do not wish to legally marry because they might lose health insurance or Social Security benefits.
Church officials also noted that, unlike communion, the rite is not mandatory. Clergy may choose not to perform it.
Diocese representatives also passed a resolution at their convention calling on the Episcopal Church to let gays and lesbians become bishops.
The L.A. diocese is expected to elect two suffragan, or assisting, bishops in 2010, and some say it is possible a gay or lesbian bishop could be nominated from among qualified candidates around the world.