Less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, the Episcopal Church has voted to fully embrace marriage equality, making it the second major American Christian denomination to do so in 2015.
On Wednesday evening in Salt Lake City, Utah, delegates attending the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the group’s conference held every 3 years, voted overwhelmingly to approve two resolutions that effectively codify theological support for same-sex marriage. The first (A054) formally approves gender-neutral and same-sex marriage ceremonies, while the second (A036) changes the current marriage “canons” to allow clergy to officiate same-sex marriages using either a marriage rite from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer or a “trial” liturgy.
Technically local bishops have to approve the use of same-sex liturgies for priests, but the overtures also require church leadership to grant LGBT couples in each diocese “access” to marriage. Thus, taken together, the resolutions ultimately allow Episcopal priests in the United States the ability to officiate a same-sex weddings with approval, and guarantee that LGBT couples can be married by the church.
“This historic vote represents 40 years of patient conversations and steady advocacy,” Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop who was in Salt Lake City for the vote, told ThinkProgress. “Just as the Supreme Court’s marriage decision made us feel — finally — like full and equal Americans, this vote by the Episcopal Church represents — finally — our full inclusion in this branch of the Body of Christ. I think God must be smiling!”
The decision sparked celebrations among Episcopalians at the conference, who have a long history of supporting LGBT rights. The denomination has been ordaining openly LGBT people for decades, allowing church leaders to be a consistent religious voice among pro-LGBT advocacy efforts. Episcopalians also overwhelmingly support marriage equality as a group, and individual bishops have actually functionally allowed priests to officiate same-sex marriages in many parts of the country for some time.
“It was wonderful,” said Katie Sherrod, a lay deputy — or voting participant — at the convention from Fort Worth, Texas. She fought back tears as she described the scene at Salt Lake City, saying, “I think the Episcopal Church turned to the world yesterday, opened its arms, and said ‘We are welcome all into the inclusive love of Jesus christ — no exceptions.’”
“The Supreme Court took care of the civil rights, and we took care of the religious rites,” Sherrod said, laughing.
But while Wednesday’s vote cements the group’s theological embrace of marriage, the decision is already causing controversy within the Anglican communion — the larger global church body of which the Episcopal church is a part. Earlier this week, The Most Rev. Justin Welby — the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Anglican communion — expressed “deep concern” when the Episcopal bishops offered initial approval of the two overtures, saying in a statement that the vote could “cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships.”
Still, the resolution actually includes what amounts to a “conscience clause” for bishops and priests who disapprove of same-sex marriage to opt-out of performing unions, although they are required to accommodate couples in some way in every diocese.
“It’s a kind of way of honoring the conscience of the bishop, but not allowing the bishop to deny same-sex couples the opportunity to marry in the church,” said Jim Naughton, a partner at Canticle Communications and founder of the popular Episcopal Cafe blog.
Rev. Brian Baker, a priest in Sacramento, California who chaired the committee that oversaw the marriage resolutions for the Episcopal House of Deputies, also acknowledged the need to respect those who disagree with the decision, but couldn’t help but celebrate the vote all the same.
“This is a definitive step for the Episcopal church,” Baker said. “To have this vote pass so soon after the Supreme Court decision…It was just breathtaking.”
“God has clearly been at work in the culture and in the church, changing the hearts and minds of Episcopalians,” he added.