by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. has approved a 'blessing' service for same-sex unions.
Church bishops approved the new service July 10 at the denomination's annual convention, held in Indianapolis, by a vote of 111 to 41, with three abstentions. Lay delegates approved it later the same day.
Nearly 40 people testified on the proposed resolution during a committee hearing on July 7 and supporters outnumbered opponents, according to the Episcopal News Service, the church's officially sponsored news source.
Before the final vote, the resolution was amended by the committee to specify that 'no bishop, priest, deacon, or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities, as a result of his or her conscientious objection to or support for the 77th General Convention's action with regard to the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships.'
The policy also allows local bishops to decide whether to allow the service in their dioceses.
The service is not considered a marriage ceremony, media affairs representative Nancy Davidge said.
'We have authorized a blessing, and a blessing is different than a marriage,' she said. 'A blessing is a theological response to a monogamous, committed relationship.'
Marriage requires the additional involvement of civil authorities, she added, and many states do not allow same-sex couples to marry.
In the proposed rite, each person would make a vow to the other, exchange rings, and be declared 'bound to one another in a holy covenant, as long as they both shall live.'
Episcopal policy calls for a three-year trial run of the blessing service, which is called 'The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.'
It will be accompanied by a review process leading up to the church's next annual convention in Salt Lake City. Church leaders will then decide whether to make the policy permanent, spokesperson Neva Rae Fox told CNN.
With the vote, the Episcopal Church becomes the largest U.S. denomination to officially sanction same-sex relationships. The Episcopal Church has about 1.95 million members in the United States, down 16% over the last decade, according to the church.
The relationship of LGBT people to the church has been controversial for Episcopalians. In 2003, the U.S. church split over the election of Gene Robinson, who is openly Gay and noncelibate, as bishop of New Hampshire. In 2009, the church approved a policy allowing Gays and Lesbians to be ordained as priests.
By contrast, the Church of England, the Episcopalians' parent church, has objected strenuously to plans by the British government to legalize same-sex civil marriage.
The Episcopal bishops also voted on July 7 to include 'gender identity and expression' in its 'nondiscrimination canons,' meaning that transitioning to another gender cannot be used to exclude candidates for ordination to the ministry.
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