In doing so, the Episcopal Church joined a small but growing number of religious groups in the U.S. that have sanctioned rites for celebrating same-sex unions. Few, however, are part of international bodies.
Episcopalians, on the other hand, form the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, a fellowship with 85 million members worldwide and roots in the Church of England. Anxious to keep the communion intact, Anglican leaders have warned the Episcopal Church against adopting pro-gay policies. Many Anglicans in Africa and other parts of the world consider homosexuality sinful.
On Wednesday, David Brownlie-Marshall, a spokesman for Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, said: “The Archbishop is not planning to release a statement at this stage.” Williams plans to retire at the end of this year.
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori voted in favor of the same-sex blessings on Monday. A spokeswoman said she was not available for comment.
The Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime gay rights activist in the Episcopal Church, praised the new blessings as a “step towards full inclusion of all the baptized in all the sacraments.” But the senior associate at All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif., said the work is incomplete.
The same-sex rites resemble a marriage ceremony, with an exchange of vows and rings — but are not, technically, a wedding. Nor are the blessings included in the Book of Common Prayer, the Anglican Communion’s official book of services and rites, which defines marriage as between a man and woman.
Some gay activists have already criticized the new Episcopal rites as “separate and unequal.”
Russell said the blessings, which the resolution passed on Tuesday calls “provisional,” are a way station, not a final stop. “I am quite confident that in three years we will be back and moving toward full marriage equality,” she said.
But will conservative Episcopalians still be around to debate them?
The diocese of South Carolina’s delegation left the General Convention in protest on Wednesday.
“Due to the actions of General Convention, the South Carolina deputation has concluded that we cannot continue with business as usual,” the diocese said in a statement. “We all agree that we cannot and will not remain on the floor of the House and act as if all is normal.”
On Tuesday, the Rev. Kendall Harmon, the Diocese of South Carolina’s canon theologian, called the approval of same-sex blessings “unbiblical” and “unseemly.”
“By making this decision, the Episcopal Church moves further away from Jesus Christ and his teaching,” said Harmon. “It thereby makes it necessary for the diocese of South Carolina to take further decisive and dramatic action to distance itself from this false step.”