Sixteen years after allowing gays and lesbians to become priests, the Episcopal Church appears poised to introduce a rite that would specifically bless the unions of same-sex couples.
If the liturgy is approved, which is expected, Episcopalians will become the first major denomination to endorse such a ritual for homosexual couples.
On its face, the blessing seems similar to that of a marriage rite -- including “I do,” “we have gathered together today” and an exchange of rings. Notably absent are the words “husband,” “wife” and “marriage.”
Supporters of the liturgy emphasize that the rite would acknowledge and bless same-sex unions, but would not sanctify them as marriage in most states. Churches in states where gay marriage is legal -- six, as well as Washington, D.C. -- have had the option of blessing gay marriage, but do not currently use a formal liturgy.
“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.”
Three years ago, the church’s General Convention authorized the creation of the rite. The convention meets every three years.
A hearing on the liturgy is slated for Saturday, but a vote has not yet been scheduled.
Passing official recognition for gay couples would be a major advance for gay congregants, Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. of the Diocese of Pennsylvania told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Bennison is a member of the legislative committee that will present the measure. A 300-member House of Bishops and a 800-member House of Deputies must both approve the same-sex liturgy for it to become official.
The laity and clergy who make up the House of Deputies might find it easier than the bishops to pass the blessing because they can also pass the buck more easily, Bennison said. Bishops could draw ire for approving it if some in their diocese perceive gay marriage as an affront to Christian values.
“For some people, it’s going to be troubling,” Bennison told the Inquirer. “For others, it’s going to be thrilling.”
A commission on liturgy and music spent three years putting together the proposed blessing, which includes a script for responses from the congregation, a series of faith reflections for the couple and a discussion guide for congregants who are curious or upset.
The team collected blessings from hundreds of sources, including churches in Iowa, Utah and North Carolina. Several diocese of the Anglican Church of Canada, also a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, contributed liturgies as well.
Episcopalians may not agree on the definition of marriage, or with what the Bible says about divorce and sexuality, the discussion guide acknowledges. But, it says, Christians “do agree on matters of the greatest importance -- the love and salvation offered by Jesus Christ.”
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