By Susan Guyett
INDIANAPOLIS, IN (Reuters) - A proposal to expand the U.S. Episcopal Church's nondiscrimination canons for the ordained ministry to include "gender identity and expression" passed its first hurdle on Thursday, when it won committee approval at the church's General Convention.
The move comes nine years after the Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, approved its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, sparking the departure of conservative parishes. The church now allows gay men and lesbians to join the ordained ministry.
At this year's triennial convention in Indianapolis, the church's leadership is also due to consider approving a liturgy for same-sex weddings. If approved, it will be on a trial basis.
The resolution on gender, which would prohibit the exclusion of transgender Episcopalians from the lay or ordained ministry, will next be considered by the House of Bishops, which could come as soon as Friday or Saturday, a church spokeswoman said.
If it is approved by the bishops, it will go to the House of Deputies for final approval.
The church already bars discrimination, for those who wish to join the ministry, on the basis of race, color, ethnic and national origin, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities and age.
When a similar resolution was considered at the church's last convention, in 2009, the bishops agreed the church would ban "all" discrimination, but the church canon was not changed. Supporters of the change said it was time to go further.
"Please don't focus on us as an abstract issue," said Rev. Vicki Gray, a deacon at Christ the Lord Episcopal Church in Pinole, California, who identifies as transgender. "We are flesh-and-blood human beings."
"The resolution is important so transgender people can have access to our church. ‘All' is not sufficient," said Gray.
Rev. Carolyn Woodall, a Deacon at St. Mary in the Mountain Episcopal Church of Jamestown, California, who also said she identifies as transgender, said transgender individuals are the "least understood people in society."
Sue Ellen Ruetsch, of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany, New York, was the only witness to speak against the change.
"I understand the Bible doesn't specifically mention transgender," she said. If God does not make mistakes, "why do you need to change?"
(Reporting by Susan Guyett; editing by Todd Eastham; Editing by Edith Honan)