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Episcopal leaders vote on same-sex liturgy, revised marriage definition
The Episcopal Church, during its convention in Salt Lake City, voted to adopt rituals for same-sex marriage ceremonies, making it the third mainline Protestant denomination in America to do so. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
Episcopal Church leaders adopted rituals for same-sex marriage ceremonies, making it the third mainline Protestant denomination in America to do so.

Capping a week of debate in which opposing voices were scarce, the Episcopal Church USA's House of Deputies, meeting in the faith's 78th General Convention, voted 184-23 to approve the new liturgy. In a separate action, Episcopal Church deputies voted 173 to 27 to approve the change to the church's canon, or rules, redefining marriage as being between two persons, instead of a man and a woman.

"This is one of many bridges we need to build for the future," said E. Bruce Garner, a deputy from Atlanta, of the change. But the Rev. Jos Luis Mendoza from Honduras opposed the move, saying it would cause schism in the church.

"This resolution goes against the biblical principles of our church," he said. "Don't be seduced by the fashion of society."

The Episcopal Church vote comes on the heels of a June 26 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states and a dramatic shift in public support for the change. Episcopalians now join the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ in offering such rituals to same-sex couples.

The Episcopal Church voted in 1976 that gays and lesbians were "a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the (c)hurch." By 2003, the Episcopal Church elected its first openly gay bishop, a move that critics say triggered a major schism. In the past nine years, the church has lost 12 percent of its membership, statistics revealed.

Beginning Nov. 29, which Episcopalians note as the first Sunday of Advent, congregations will be authorized to use a rite called "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant," which is designed without reference to gender. Proposed for "trial" use are liturgies tailored to same-sex marriages where they are legal, the church's resolution said.

The use of the liturgies would be subject to the permission of a diocese's bishop, said the Rev. Brian Baker, a member of the church's task force on marriage. Bishops can refuse to allow the ceremonies in their diocese, and any cleric can refuse to marry any couple for any reason, according to the voted resolution.

The church's actions Wednesday also involved changing of official Episcopal Church definition of marriage, contained in a resolution proposing revisions to the church's "canon," or rules, concerning marriage.

According to Joan Geiszler-Ludlum, an attorney from North Carolina and chairwoman of the Committee on Constitution and Canons, those changes would make same-sex couples feel capable of achieving the same goals in marriage other couples desire.

In the runup to the vote, several dozen people spoke at three hearings of the church's special legislative committee on marriage, as well as in the House of Bishops. Only one, the Rt. Rev. William Love, bishop of Albany, New York, cited the Bible in his arguments, referring to Jesus' words on divorce that refer to marriage as between a man and a woman.

Several Episcopal Church delegates said discussions about scriptural interpretations of marriage and same-sex behavior have been ongoing prior to the Salt Lake City convention.

Norah Grimball, a lay deputy from Columbia, South Carolina, said her diocese has "discussed this at length" of the study papers citing scripture. "We have to realize that most of the Bible's references (against homosexuality) were in the setting of abuse and not a committed, loving relationship," she said.

The Rt. Rev. Don Johnson, also saying the Bible's viewpoint has been discussed over the years, added, "we are trying to be faithful to God's love for all creation and our call to be part of that."

Responding to the earlier vote by the House of Bishops approving the new marriage liturgy, the leader of the world's Anglicans said the move would add stress to relationships between the Episcopal Church and its Anglican peers.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby stated the American move "will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships."
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