Bishop John Bryson Chane, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, plans to formally bless the longtime relationship of a gay Episcopal priest and his partner next month at a ceremony in Maryland.

It will be the first time that Chane has performed such a ceremony in the Washington diocese.

In presiding at the service for the Rev. Michael Hopkins, rector of St. George's Episcopal Church in Prince George's County, and his partner, John Clinton Bradley, Chane will use a newly written liturgy that has been drawn up by the diocese for blessings of same-sex unions.

Chane decided to officiate at the ceremony because he believes covenant relationships, in which two people have committed themselves to spending their lives together, "are holy and deserve to be blessed, deserve to be held up by the community and they deserve to be called what they are: sacred," said James Naughton, Chane's spokesman.

Naughton added that Hopkins is an "extremely well-regarded" person in the diocese, as well as a friend of Chane's. "So in blessing this relationship, the bishop wasn't looking for an opening to make some type of statement -- he was celebrating the life of a friend as anyone would do."

Traditionalist Episcopalians opposed to same-sex partnerships expressed concern about Chane's plans to preside at the ceremony.

"We are so disturbed by this decision," said Cynthia Brust, spokeswoman for the American Anglican Council, a group of conservative Episcopalians.

"Same-sex blessings contradict the clear teaching on marriage and sexuality from the Bible, as well as 200 years of Christian faith and practice," Brust added. "Sexuality in Scripture is to be confined to a man and woman in holy matrimony. So this kind of thing endangers the sanctity of marriage and undermines it."

At its general convention last summer, the 2.3 million-member denomination approved for the first time the selection of an openly gay bishop. Convention delegates also voted to allow bishops to develop liturgies to bless committed gay relationships, ceremonies the church does not consider a sacrament.

Chane, whose views on gay unions were known to the diocese when it elected him bishop in January 2000, appointed a committee -- co-chaired by Hopkins and the Rev. Susan N. Blue, rector of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington -- to write a liturgy for the Washington diocese. Naughton said that the new rite is set to be unveiled publicly next week.

Episcopal priests in the Washington diocese have blessed same-sex unions. The priests, however, had to write their own rites on an ad hoc basis because the diocese did not have one for general use.

Hopkins is a past president of Integrity, an Episcopalian gay organization, and has worked for the acceptance of gay men and lesbians in the church. Naughton said Hopkins has doubled the membership of St. George's since he became its rector a decade ago. The blessing ceremony is scheduled for June 12 at the Glenn Dale church.

Hopkins and Bradley were out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment.