Episcopal bishops approved an official prayer service for blessing same-sex couples Monday at a national convention that also cleared the way for transgender ordination.
At the Episcopal General Convention in Indianapolis, the House of Bishops voted 111-41, with three abstentions, to authorize a provisional rite for same-sex unions for the next three years. The liturgy next goes to convention’s deputies for their authorization.
In a separate vote Monday, the full convention approved new anti-discrimination language for transgendered clergy candidates and church members. Some dioceses already ordain transgendered people or elect them to positions of parish leadership. However, advocates for the amendment argued they needed an explicit statement of acceptance as the churchwide policy.
The Rev. Carla Robinson, who is transgendered and a vicar of All Saints Church in Seattle, said she was lucky to have the backing of parishes and bishops when she was considering ordination, but she said others haven’t had the same support.
“I stand here as a priest today because my diocese specifically said that my gender identity and expression didn’t disqualify me from the discernment process,” Robinson said from the floor of the convention. “I ask that as a church we do the same for my trans sisters and brothers.” While critics of the different measures registered their opposition during the convention debate, many conceded ahead of the vote that they were in the minority.
Episcopalians blazed a trail — and caused an uproar — in 2003 by consecrating New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican world. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. body of the Anglican Communion. Episcopal conservatives responded by creating a rival denomination under the guidance of like-minded Anglican leaders overseas.
Worldwide, the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, which has its roots in the Church of England, has been splintering ever since. Anglican leaders had asked Episcopalians for a moratorium on electing gay or lesbian bishops as the communion struggled to stay together. However, after a few years, Episcopalians voted to lift the temporary ban.
On Monday, several Episcopal bishops who spoke against the same-sex unions trial liturgy warned about the repercussions overseas.
“I believe it will put us, put the Episcopal Church, out of the Christian mainstream,” said Bishop Edward Little of the Diocese of Northern Indiana. “They will interpret that the Episcopal Church has endorsed same-sex marriage.”
However, Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde argued that an official service was needed to honor and bless the “lifelong same-sex couples” who she said “have served Christ and Christ’s mission in ways incalculable to measure.”
The official liturgy for same-sex blessings has been in development since 2009, when it was authorized by the last General Convention. Some bishops had already developed rites for the ceremonies for use in their own dioceses. If the deputies approve the proposal before them in Indianapolis, it will be the first such official prayer for use by the entire church.
The rite is called “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.” It includes what one bishop described as a conscience clause, explicitly stating that no one in the church would be forced to perform the ceremony or punished in any way for barring its use.
Like other mainline Protestant groups, Episcopalians have been debating the Bible and homosexuality for decades. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have in recent years struck down barriers for clergy living with same-sex partners, while the United Methodist Church has maintained its ban on ordination for openly gay and lesbian candidates.
The New York-based Episcopal Church has 1.96 million members. The convention in Indianapolis runs through Thursday.