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US Episcopalians Vote to Allow Same-Sex Marriages in Churches

Episcopalians march for same-sex marriage equality during the 2013 Sacramento, CA LGBT Pride parade. (Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr Creative Commons)

Episcopalians march for same-sex marriage equality during the 2013 Sacramento, CA LGBT Pride parade. (Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr Creative Commons)

US Episcopalian leaders voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to eliminate language referring to marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and to allow religious weddings for same-sex couples in Episcopal churches across the nation.

CBS News reports the votes came during the denomination’s General Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah. The church, which is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion and has 2 million members, will eliminate canonical language defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman and has authorized two new marriage rites that can be used by both same-sex and mixed-sex couples.

The change comes just days after the Supreme Court issued a ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation. Episcopal clergy who do not wish to perform or participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies will be able to opt out under the church’s new rules.

Four decades ago, the Episcopal General Convention said that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care of the church,” said the Very Rev. Brian Baker, deputy chair of the Special Legislative Committee on Marriage. “That resolution began a 39-year conversation about what that full and equal claim would look like. The conversation has been difficult for many and painful for many.”

“In 1976, the Church promised full and equal claim to LGBT members, and we’ve spent those years making that resolution a reality,” Rev. Susan Russell of the Diocese of Los Angeles told Reuters. “Today’s action is a huge step… toward a promised land of a Church that fully includes all its members.”

In 2003, Episcopalians elected Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, as bishop of the Archdiocese of New Hampshire. In 2012, the Episcopal Church became the largest US denomination (it ranks 14th among all US religious sects) to approve a liturgy for clergy to use for blessing same-sex marriages. The following year the Utah Episcopal Church welcomed the legalization of gay marriage in that staunchly conservative state, saying it recognizes the dignity of every human being.

Episcopalians have long championed progressive social causes. The church has opposed the death penalty while supporting civil rights and affirmative action. At the current General Convention, climate change, racial justice and gun control were on the agenda along with LGBT marriage equality. Also at the gathering, the church elected its first-ever black presiding bishop, choosing Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina in a landslide vote. Women have also been ordained as Episcopal priests in the US since 1974, and in 1989 Barbara Harris was consecrated as the church’s first female bishop.

But not all Episcopalians support the church’s embrace of same-sex marriage. Rev. Neal Michell, dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, told Reuters he is against marriage equality because “the teaching of scriptures says marriage itself is between a man and a woman. That’s the teaching of the (Book of Common Prayer) and our catechism.”

On the eve of the General Convention, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans, issued a statement expressing his “deep concern” about the move to change the definition of marriage. Welby said that this latest decision “will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships.”

The global association of Anglicans split deeply after Canada’s Anglican Church began blessing same-sex couples in 2002. Particularly enraged are Anglicans in Africa, where many societies view homosexuality as an abomination and some countries have passed laws punishing gay sex with lengthy prison terms, even life imprisonment in Uganda.

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