PHILADELPHIA — Sixteen fractious years after it allowed the ordination of homosexuals, the Episcopal Church appears poised to adopt a blessing rite for same-sex couples wishing to wed.
If approved, as expected, at the church's General Convention starting today in Indianapolis, the liturgy would be the first such rite endorsed by a major denomination in the United States.
Advocates of the blessing — already written, down to the "We have gathered here today" and "I do" and the exchange of rings — stress that it is not a sacrament and would not confer "marriage" on the couple.
Episcopal Church law defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and there are no plans to change that this year.
But the 2009 convention had encouraged bishops in states allowing same-sex marriage — currently six, plus the District of Columbia — to "provide generous pastoral response" to gay and lesbian members. It also authorized the creation of the rite now under consideration.
Its passage would be a major advance for gay people within the 2-million-member denomination, said Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. of the Diocese of Pennsylvania.
He serves on the legislative committee that will present the measure to the 300-member House of Bishops and the 800 laity and clergy who make up the House of Deputies. If the same-sex blessing is to pass, both houses must approve it.
"For some people, it's going to be troubling. For others, it's going to be thrilling," said Bennison, whose 55,000-member diocese encompasses Philadelphia and four suburban counties.
The measure seems to have broad support in the House of Deputies, he said. But some moderate bishops, he added, fear it could divide their dioceses.
On Monday, a committee of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) debated proposals to change its definition of marriage from "the union of a man and a woman" to "the union of two people" and permit clergy to perform same-gender marriage in states where it is legal.
Even if the assembly, convened in Pittsburgh, adopts the measures, a majority of the church's 173 regional bodies, or presbyteries, would also have to approve before they became church law.