INDIANAPOLIS — The Episcopal Church this week became the largest Christian denomination in the U.S. to offer religious blessings to same-sex couples. But not all of the church dioceses are on board with the decision, nor do they have to perform the rite.
Episcopalians meeting in Indianapolis overwhelmingly approved the new rite. Lay members and priests voted 171-41 in favor of the same-sex blessings. Bishops voted 111-41, with three abstentions.
The vote came the day after the church's full convention approved new anti-discrimination language for transgendered clergy candidates and church members.
The approval of the same-sex union rites comes 16 years after the Episcopal Church allowed gays and lesbians to become priests and nine years after electing its first gay bishop. But those decisions have strained the U.S. church's relations with its international counterparts.
Episcopalians are part of the international Anglican Communion, a fellowship with 85 million members worldwide that has roots in the Church of England. Anxious to keep the communion intact, Anglican leaders have warned the Episcopal Church against adopting pro-gay policies, the Religion News Service reported.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, has yet to comment on the Episcopal Church's vote.
The liturgy does not represent a religious marriage — the church defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. The new liturgy, which is called “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” includes a conscience clause, stating that no one in the church would be forced to perform the ceremony or punished in any way for barring its use.
Nevertheless, gay activist groups called the decision a step toward "the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church."
While the vote follows a trend of the church moving to the left on same-sex issues, the South Carolina diocese left the convention in protest.
Religion News Service quoted the Rev. Kendall Harmon, the Diocese of South Carolina’s canon theologian, calling the approval of same-sex blessings “unbiblical” and “unseemly.”
“By making this decision, the Episcopal Church moves further away from Jesus Christ and his teaching,” said Harmon. “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.”
In Louisiana, the Rev. James Flowers, of St. George's in Bossier City, said churches in the West Louisiana Diocese will likely not participate.
"I think we're divided about 50/50 in this diocese, but our new bishop has made it pretty clear that he's not going to be in favor of same sex blessings," Rev. Flowers said.
According to the Huffington Post, other religious groups that have sanctioned rites for celebrating same-sex unions include United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). In addition, Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish denominations allow same-sex blessings. In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America let churches recognize same-sex relationships, but it did not endorse an official church policy or liturgy for blessings.