By Daniel Burke/Religion News Service
Gay and lesbian Episcopalians are celebrating their church’s approval on Tuesday of liturgical rites for blessing same-sex couples. But conservatives are threatening to take “drastic” steps to distance themselves from the Episcopal Church.
Episcopalians meeting at their triennial General Convention in Indianapolis overwhelmingly approved the new rites, which are designed to make uniform the ceremonies already in place in some dioceses.
Lay members and priests voted 171-41 in favor of the same-sex blessings. Bishops voted 111-41, with three abstentions.
In doing so, the Episcopal Church joined a small but growing number of religious groups in the U.S. that have sanctioned rites for celebrating same-sex unions. Few, however, are part of international bodies.
Episcopalians, on the other hand, form the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, a fellowship with 85 million members worldwide and roots in the Church of England. Anxious to keep the communion intact, Anglican leaders have warned the Episcopal Church against adopting pro-gay policies. Many Anglicans in Africa and other parts of the world consider homosexuality sinful.
The Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime gay rights activist in the Episcopal Church, praised the new blessings as a “step towards full inclusion of all the baptized in all the sacraments.” But the senior associate at All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif., said the work is incomplete.
The same-sex rites resemble a marriage ceremony, with an exchange of vows and rings – but are not a marriage rite. Nor are the blessings included in the Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church’s official book of services and rites, which defines marriage as between a man and woman.
Some gay activists have already criticized the new Episcopal rites as “separate and unequal.”
Russell said the blessings, which the resolution passed on Tuesday calls “provisional,” are a way station, not a final stop. “I am quite confident that in three years we will be back and moving toward full marriage equality,” she said.
But will conservative Episcopalians still be around to debate them?
The diocese of South Carolina’s delegation left the General Convention in protest on Wednesday.
“Due to the actions of General Convention, the South Carolina deputation has concluded that we cannot continue with business as usual,” the diocese said in a statement. “We all agree that we cannot and will not remain on the floor of the House and act as if all is normal.”
“By making this decision, the Episcopal Church moves further away from Jesus Christ and his teaching,” said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, the Diocese of South Carolina’s canon theologian. “It thereby makes it necessary for the diocese of South Carolina to take further decisive and dramatic action to distance itself from this false step.”
Harmon said South Carolina is not necessarily threatening to secede from the Episcopal Church, as four dioceses have done since the church consecrated a gay bishop in 2003. But his diocese has already begun to move away from the national church, and local Episcopalians will now expect that distance to increase, Harmon said.
Under guidelines approved with the same-sex blessings, bishops do not have to allow them in their diocese. Nor can priests be forced to perform them.
In the Diocese of Mississippi, Bishop Duncan Gray has said he will not authorize use of the rite.