The Episcopal Diocese of Vermont unveiled new guidelines Friday for the performance of civil union ceremonies for same-sex couples, sparking a swift denunciation from conservatives in the 70 million-member Anglican Communion, which has been riven by issues related to homosexuality in the past year.
Episcopal priests in Vermont have been presiding over such ceremonies since 2000, when the state became the first in the nation to allow civil unions that give gay couples most of the legal protections of marriage. But conservatives in the church are upset that the new guidelines allow a liturgy closely resembling that of a wedding.
While other dioceses have also developed new liturgical rites for same-sex couples, Vermont's are the only ones that carry legal weight because the state's civil union law permits couples to be joined by clergy, said Vermont Bishop Thomas C. Ely, who last year commissioned a task force to develop the new ceremonies. "This signals a valuing of the commitment and presence of gays and lesbians in our churches and an ongoing commitment to the fact that when we say the Episcopal Church welcomes you, we mean it," he said.
Since U.S. dioceses were given the option of blessing same-sex unions at the Episcopal Church's general convention last year, several other dioceses across the country, including the one in Washington, have developed new liturgies. Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno recently became the first diocesan head to preside over such a ceremony.
In Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages began last month, Bishop M. Thomas Shaw has said priests cannot solemnize such relationships. While they are able to preside over ceremonies blessing same-sex unions, those have no legal weight in the state.
The report outlining Vermont's new liturgy includes an extensive discussion of the theological underpinnings of same-sex ceremonies and provides two options for such liturgies, one of which closely approximates a traditional marriage rite.
For example, same-sex couples are permitted to exchange rings, and only minor word changes are made in the liturgy, such as couples vowing to take their spouses "to be my partner in life," rather than "to be my husband/wife." Couples also are to sign a "declaration of intention" that closely mirrors that signed before marriage ceremonies.
"We incorporate parallel components to the matrimony ceremony for every single aspect of the union ceremony," Ely said.
Conservative Anglican groups, already angry over the consecration of the Rev. V. Eugene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first openly gay bishop last fall, have warned of a schism and denounced such developments as precipitating a crisis in the church.
"My understanding is that what Vermont has done comes awfully close to matrimony, and to put a same-sex blessing in that category is horrifying," said Cynthia P. Brust, a spokeswoman for the American Anglican Council. "We have had the fabric of Anglican Communion torn to pieces, and I do not understand bishops that have not shown more restraint."