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On July 10, 2012, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church of the United States, in a vote by orders, authorized the provisional use of a rite entitled "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant." The motion to approve the blessing of same-sex unions was carried by 78% in the clergy order (85-22) and 76% (86-19) in the lay order. On July 9, the House of Bishops, on a vote of 111 to 41, had approved the rite, which may be used by clergy to bless same-sex couples beginning December 2, 2012, with permission of their bishop.
The resolution also calls on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music "to conduct a review process over the next triennium, making clear that this is a work in progress," the Rev. Ruth Meyers, deputy of the Diocese of Chicago, said in introducing the legislation to the deputies.
According to Sharon Sheridan of the Episcopal News Service, the resolution also directs the Standing Commission to include "diverse theological perspectives in the further development of the theological resource" and to invite responses from throughout the church as well as from the Anglican Communion and the church's ecumenical partners.
The resolution also allows clergy to decline to preside at a blessing liturgy and says that no one "should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities" for objecting to or supporting the 77th General Convention's action on blessings.
Meyers described the liturgy as "a service of blessing for same-sex couples who are in lifelong, faithful monogamous, committed relationships."
Before the House of Deputies debated the resolution, the Very Rev. David Thurlow, a member of the Prayer Book, Liturgy and Church Music Committee and a deputy of the Diocese of South Carolina, presented a minority report.
"For 2,000 years, the church has had clear teaching regarding marriage," he said, adding "we haven't taken heed of the universal voice of the church universal or the Anglican Communion."
"This resolution marks a clear and significant departure--theological, doctrinal and in worship--from the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them," he contended.
During the debate, Deputy Pete Ross of the Diocese of Michigan responded by observing, "The signs outside our church say all are welcome," and then asking, "Do we need an asterisk?"
The approval of the liturgy makes the Episcopal Church the largest mainstream denomination in the United States to bless same-sex couples, although a number of denominations and religious traditions, including the Quakers, the Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, and the Metropolitan Community Church, go beyond blessing couples to performing marriages in areas where such marriages are legal.
Although officials of the Episcopal Church have been emphatic that the approved liturgy does not refer to marriage, it apparently can be used in marriage ceremonies in those states where gay marriage is legal and where local bishops permit its use.
The blessing includes prayers and vows and an exchange of rings, but pointedly does not include the words "husband," "wife," or "marriage."
Church laws continue to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Adoption of the liturgy, along with a policy that allows the ordination of transgender people as priests, continues the progress of the Episcopal Church toward full inclusiveness.
The Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop nine years ago, a move that led many conservative congregations and some dioceses to leave the denomination. Membership has declined to 1.9 million, down from about 2.3 million in 2003.
When the conservatives threatened to leave the Church in response to the consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson, and the Anglican Communion made moves to punish the Church, in 2006 the Episcopal Church passed resolutions urging dioceses not to elect bishops whose "manner of life" presents a challenge to the wider church and not to develop same-sex blessings. These resolutions disappointed gay men and lesbians in the Church and did little to placate the conservatives.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the 2006 convention several individual congregations and dioceses of the Episcopal Church announced that they would sever their ties with the Episcopal Church and seek alliances with African or Southern Cone primates.
With the realization that conservatives were not likely to be appeased, the Episcopal Church in 2009 rescinded the moratorium on electing gay and lesbian bishops and on developing same-sex blessings.
In December 2009, the Los Angeles diocese elected the Rev. Mary Douglas Glasspool suffragan bishop. Her election--and approval by a majority of the church's other 110 dioceses--made her the denomination's first openly lesbian bishop.
In announcing that Glasspool's election had been approved by a majority of the Church's dioceses, Los Angeles Bishop Jon Bruno said that the approval shows that the Episcopal Church "creates no barrier for ministry on the basis of gender and sexual orientation," while conservatives predictably decried the action as "grieving the heart of God."
The Episcopal Church now seems irrevocably committed to recognizing gay men and lesbians as full members of the denomination. In taking this position, it has braved the alienation of other constituent members of the Anglican Communion. The Church's position within the Communion will likely remain ambiguous, particularly given the failure of leadership exercised by the current Archbishop of Canterbury.
We applaud the progress the Episcopal Church has made in welcoming glbtq people and in leading other mainstream denominations, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., to become more welcoming.
At the same time, however, we cannot help but note that the insistence that same-sex unions are not "real" marriages and the exemptions given to bishops to refuse to permit the blessings in their dioceses undercut the message of equality that the Church is attempting to send. Until the Church recognizes same-sex unions as full-fledged marriages, and makes that recognition a clear and unambiguous doctrine of the denomination, gay people will not be fully equal members of the Episcopal Church.
Seminarian Colin Mathewson of San Diego reports on the consideration of the liturgy to bless same-sex couples in the House of Bishops.