The "Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant" will debut in December, and can be used for commitment ceremonies for same-sex weddings in states where such unions have been declared legal, according to the church. Delegates approved it July 10.
David Virtue, president of Virtue Online, the Anglican communion's largest orthodox Evangelical Anglican online news service, minced no words in describing the vote.
"It's shocking, it's terrible. They're doing something that's never happened in 2,000 years of church history," he said. "They are legitimizing a behavior and offering rites to that behavior that is untenable, unbiblical, unscriptural, theologically unacceptable to both Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical Protestant churches."
The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican denomination.
Days earlier, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) narrowly rejected, by a 338-308 vote, a proposal to abandon the traditional definition of marriage, a year after it struck down a barrier to ordaining homosexuals. The PCUSA General Assembly, meeting July 6 in Pittsburgh, decided not to change how marriage was defined in the church constitution from a "civil contract between a woman and a man" to a "covenant between two people." The assembly also rejected measures that would have affirmed a traditional definition of marriage or sought more theological study of the issue.
A committee had approved the change to the marriage definition 28-24, with supporters saying that the denomination should take a historic stand for oppressed minorities. "Today the PCUSA has the chance to be prophetic," the Rev. Bob Melone from Virginia said during debate, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Some of the opposition to the change was based on conservative interpretations of Scripture. "I must affirm definition of marriage as between one man and one woman," said Jodi Craiglow, of the Miami Valley Presbytery in Ohio. She directly addressed gay PCUSA members, saying, "As much as my heart breaks for your pain and frustration, I must simply hold to the standard of the God I love."
But the vote also reflected the delegates' fear of further damaging an already fragile denomination. The PCUSA has been losing members for decades. Last year, the denomination dropped just below 2 million members, and several theologically conservative churches have left to affiliate with like-minded denominations.
After the vote, Carmen La-Berge, president of the theologically conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, told the Post-Gazette that she wasn't sure the vote against same-sex marriage would persuade congregations to stay, given their many concerns, "But, where a redefinition would have served as a lever, this may serve as a salve."
But there is clearly massive pressure within the denomination to continue liberal theological trends. Throughout debate on the measure Friday, PCUSA clergy from the six states where gay marriage is legal said they have been inundated with requests to officiate at same-sex weddings and were upset that they had to risk prosecution in church courts to preside at the ceremonies.
The highest PCUSA court found the Rev. Jane Spahr of San Francisco guilty of misconduct in 2010 for officiating at same-sex weddings when they were legal in California. According to the court's rulings, clergy are allowed to bless same-sex unions but not to perform weddings.
Compiled by staff of World News Service, where this story first appeared. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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