The House of Bishops made the decision yesterday to allow priests to perform gay blessing ceremonies at the faith’s General Convention, though it must now be approved by the House of Deputies.
The convention's House of Bishops approved the provisional policy 111-41 with three abstentions Monday, clearing it for consideration by the House of Deputies, which approved it Tuesday evening.
The policy was approved in the House of Deputies, following more than an hour of debate, by 78% of the voting lay members and by 76% of clergy.
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 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, and many states do not allow gays to marry.
The 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. It's then that church leaders would decide whether to make the policy permanent, church media affairs representative Neva Rae Fox said.
The vote in the House of Deputies followed comments, including from advocates arguing the policy would be a step toward inclusiveness.
Delegate Pete Ross of Michigan said it was time for the church to honor lifelong commitments of people in same-sex relationships.
"The signs outside our church says all are welcome. Do we need an asterisk?"
But the Rev. David Thurlow of South Carolina said the policy advocates a "new theology" of human sexuality that is inconsistent with church canons and doctrine.
The approval means the church is "marching off, not simply out of step, but completely out of line from the faith once delivered to the saints," Thurlow said before the vote.
The policy, which has been in development since 2009, allows local bishops to decide whether to allow the service. It also includes a provision stating that clergy members who object to same-sex unions cannot be coerced to perform the blessing, or be disciplined for refusing.Related News : Episcopal Church Leaders Expected To Bless Same-Sex Couples