The Episcopal Church has become the largest denomination to approve a blessing… (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated…)
The Episcopal Church has approved a liturgy that will allow priests to bless same-sex couples, making the church the biggest in the United States to endorse such a rite.
Starting on Dec. 2, the first Sunday of Advent, priests whose bishops give the OK will be allowed to bless the unions of gay and lesbian couples, whether same-sex marriage is legal in that state or not. (It’s currently legal in six states, as well as in Washington, D.C.)
The church’s two voting bodies approved the rite by nearly an 80% majority Tuesday at the Episcopal General Convention in Indianapolis.
“There is a place in this process for every Episcopalian regardless of their level of support,” Bishop Thomas Ely of Vermont said during the debate, according to a story on the Episcopal Church website. “Read it. Reflect upon it. Use it, but please don’t ignore it.”
The ceremony is not referred to as marriage, but it can be used in marriage ceremonies in those states where gay marriage is legal. Bishops who do not wish to use the liturgy are allowed to opt out of its use.
The blessing is called “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” and includes prayers and vows. The liturgy includes “I do” and an exchange of rings. Notably absent are the words “husband,” “wife” and “marriage.”
“While the liturgy we have developed is not called ‘marriage,’ we recognize significant parallels,” the committee wrote in its handbook on blessing same-sex marriages, called "I Bless You, And You Will Be a Blessing." “Two people publicly make a lifelong, monogamous commitment to one another with the exchange of solemn vows in a ritual that pronounces God’s blessing on their life together.”
The resolution will go up for another vote at the next triennial convention in 2015. In the meantime, the commission that proposed the liturgy will study its implementation.
During the debate that preceded Tuesday’s vote, opponents to the resolution argued that an official liturgy was the same as endorsing same-sex marriage with no theological basis. Church laws define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Supporters of the doctrine urged those voting to continue the Episcopal Church’s history of inclusion.
“The signs outside our church say all are welcome,” said Deputy Pete Ross of the Diocese of Michigan, according to the Episcopal Church website. “Do we need an asterisk?”
Nine years ago, the church ordained its first openly gay bishop. That move prompted a divorce of sorts between the Episcopal Church and some of its more conservative parishes and dioceses. The Episcopal Church is the American version of the Anglican Church; it has 1.9 million members, down from about 2.3 million in 2003.
Also, on Monday, the church approved a policy that will allow transgender people to become priests.
The handbook that accompanies the resolution includes responses from the congregation, a discussion guide for congregants with questions about the new liturgy and a series of counseling sessions for the couple to take place before the blessing.