(Photo: ENS/Mary Frances Schjonberg)
Conservative Episcopalians are calling Tuesday night's approval by leaders in The Episcopal Church of a rite for the blessing of same-sex unions "unbiblical."
"This General Convention action is unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican and unseemly," said the Rev. Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the Diocese of South Carolina, in a statement Wednesday. "By making this decision, The Episcopal Church moves further away from Jesus Christ and his teaching."
The General Convention of The Episcopal Church passed, by a large majority, a resolution authorizing for provisional use the rite "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant." Beginning Dec. 2, the first Sunday of Advent, clergy – with permission from their bishop – will be able to bless same-sex relationships using the liturgy approved Tuesday.
While Episcopal churches across the U.S. have blessed same-gender unions for years, this is the first time a church-wide public service has been agreed, according to Integrity USA, a pro-gay group.
Integrity clarified that the blessing liturgy is not a marriage service but nevertheless the group considers it a big step toward "the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church."
"[A] liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships brings gay and lesbian couples fully into the life of the Church and proclaims that the Episcopal Church considers that their lives can be holy and blessed by God," the Rev. Dr. Caroline Hall, president of Integrity, stated.
While a step forward for some, others in the denomination are grieving the decision as a departure from Scripture.
"We grieve that General Convention has further departed from these values and adopted a resolution to permit pastoral license to violate the existing canons on marriage," said deputies from the Diocese of South Carolina. "We believe this decision will seriously wound the Church."
The Diocese of South Carolina has remained wary of The Episcopal Church's liberal direction on scriptural authority and human sexuality. While it voted in 2009 to reduce its participation in the denomination, the diocese chose not to disaffiliate completely so that they can take a stand and fight from within.
Harmon, however, believes the diocese needs to "take further decisive and dramatic action" to distance itself from Tuesday's decision.
A minority report was presented ahead of the widely watched vote on same-sex blessings by the Very Rev. David Thurlow of the Diocese of South Carolina. Speaking against the resolution, he said, "For 2,000 years, the church has had clear teaching regarding marriage ... we haven't taken heed of the universal voice of the church universal or the Anglican Communion.
"This motion, if passed, will result in The Episcopal Church marching off not simply out of step, but out of line with the faith once delivered by Christ to the saints."
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. body of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It has created rifts with the rest of the global body over its ordination of openly gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions. Anglican leaders had made several calls for the U.S. church to practice restraint on those matters.
"It is unfortunate that The Episcopal Church continues to stray from the path of clear Biblical teaching," the Anglican Church in North America, which is largely made up of those who left The Episcopal Church, commented to The Christian Post.
"We are grieved when any part of the Church embraces doctrines and practices that are contrary to the Word of God. However, we remain hopeful that our brothers and sisters in The Episcopal Church will return to the clear teaching of Holy Scripture shared by most of the Anglican Communion and the Church throughout the world."
The approved resolution states that those who oppose same-sex unions will not be coerced or penalized for declining to preside at a same-sex blessing liturgy.
The liturgical and theological resources for blessing same-gender relationships will also be under review over the next three years.
Earlier this week, the General Convention approved a measure that cleared the way for transgender ordination.