Churches divided over blessing same sex union

Some bishops have been blessing the performance of same-sex marriages

The bishops of the Episcopal Church have agreed to a compromise measure that stops short of developing an official rite for same-sex unions, but gives latitude to bishops who wish to go ahead and bless such unions, particularly in states that have legalised such marriages.

Over two days of debate, some bishops said they felt compelled to act because of their pastoral responsibility to gay couples who were increasingly coming forward to ask the church to bless their unions. Many also said they saw it as a simple matter of granting equal rights to gay men and lesbians.

The vote was a momentous step for a church that has been mired in intrafactional warfare over homosexuality for more than a decade. Advocates for gay rights in the church celebrated it as a victory, noting that the vote count was a resounding 104 in favour and 30 opposed, with two abstentions.

The Episcopal Church is not the only religious denomination to take such a step. The Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism allow ceremonies to sanctify such unions.

The vote came one day after the church voted to open the door to ordaining more openly gay bishops. Both measures are likely to bring even more pressure from conservatives in the global Anglican Communion to cut ties with the Episcopal Church, its American branch.
The measure will now go to the church’s House of Deputies, which represents the clergy and lay people, who are consistently more liberal on legislation than the bishops and are therefore expected to approve it at the convention this week.

Earlier acceptance

Some bishops had already been permitting their priests to perform same-sex blessings in recent years, without the larger church’s formal approval, using homemade liturgies and rituals.

The measure says that bishops in states “where same-sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church,” meaning that they now have official permission to perform same-sex blessings. The word ‘may’ was included to make it clear that no bishop is required to permit same-sex blessings.

Episcopal conservatives, who met for a worship service and strategy session at a nearby hotel conference room at lunchtime, said they felt increasingly demoralised.

Many conservatives predicted that the decisions in Anaheim would surely lead to permanent schism in the Anglican Communion. They made reference to an opinion article written in ‘The Times of London’ by Bishop Nicholas T Wright of Durham, England, a highly influential Anglican scholar, who wrote that the Episcopal Church was conscious that what it had just done amounted to ‘formalising the schism they initiated six years ago’ when they consecrated a gay bishop in a same-sex relationship.

But many Episcopalians at the convention here believe they will have support and will not be ostracised. They are drawing on the testimony of Anglican guests from Africa, Asia and Latin America, who they have brought to the convention here as proof that they have international allies.

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