A vote last year that seemed like a defeat for gays in the Episcopal Church has, in a twist, led to an increasing number of dioceses developing just what advocates wanted official services for same-sex unions.
At the tumultuous Episcopal national convention a year ago this week, bishops gutted a measure that would have authorized drafting a liturgy blessing gay partnerships.
But at least six dioceses have interpreted even the watered-down legislation that eventually passed as a go-ahead to develop services or policies for blessing same-gender couples, saying language in the resolution encouraged formalizing the ceremonies in local parishes.
Several bishops had argued the measure was simply an acknowledgment that some parishes were already conducting the ceremonies, even though the church hadn't settled the question of whether the Bible bans gay sex.
But many other Episcopalians disagreed, pointing to a key section which recognized that ''local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.''
''As in many other dioceses, there had been blessings of unions done secretively or quietly,'' said the Rev. Daniel Webster, spokesman for the Diocese of Utah, which in May approved three different liturgies for same-sex ceremonies. ''What this said, and what the action of the General Convention allowed, was to do this in the open.''
The Rev. Kendall Harmon, theologian for the conservative Diocese of South Carolina, was among traditionalists who predicted a year ago that the measure known as C051 would lead to more same-sex blessing ceremonies, despite what some bishops said. He accused Episcopal leaders of playing down the import of the legislation to mask its real intent.
''You had more incremental movement toward a revision of the church's sexual teaching,'' Harmon said. ''What's actually happened is we've changed our teaching. I'd just wish we'd be honest about it.''
Among the other U.S. dioceses moving forward with the services or developing liturgies based on the resolution are Vermont, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, Long Island and Massachusetts where the state's highest court declared gay marriage legal. The ceremonies are not weddings, but still offer a blessing to the couple from within the church.
Some additional dioceses, including Delaware and New Hampshire, had authorized same-gender blessings before last year's convention.
Disagreement over the measure has implications beyond the U.S. denomination and could fuel a growing split with its sister churches in the global Anglican Communion.
Many Anglican leaders have condemned the American church for last year consecrating Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who lives openly with his male partner. These leaders, called primates, have also separated themselves from an Anglican diocese in Canada that authorized same-gender ceremonies. An Anglican commission is studying how to keep the 77 million-member communion unified.
Episcopal leaders say there was no hidden intent to the resolution. Competing interpretations of church rules aren't unusual and stem from how the denomination operates, they say.
The Episcopal Church has no central authority, so many policies are set through legislation at the General Convention, where bishops, clergy and lay people gather every three years to vote. If a measure is ambiguous, delegates return home with their own view of what it means.
''You're always going to have people who are going to interpret legislation conceivably in a different way,'' said Bishop John Chane of Washington, D.C., who in June conducted the first ceremony for gay partners using his diocese's new liturgy. ''To believe that consensus is ultimately the way in which we live in a community of faith really limits the power of the Holy Spirit.''
The Diocese of Vermont, which developed its new liturgy in June, had already been conducting gay blessings in response to the 2000 Vermont law making the state the first to legally recognize civil unions.
However, Bishop Thomas Ely would not have formalized the service without last year's church legislation on the issue, according to his spokeswoman, Anne Clarke Brown. ''The resolution did have an impact,'' Brown said. ''He felt that if we hadn't had that resolution, he might have been more hesitant.''
Episcopal conservatives contend that although dioceses are permitted to adapt some church teaching locally, they cannot alter core issues of faith, which traditionalists say include prohibitions on gay sex.
And they argue that overseas Anglican leaders threatening to split from the U.S. church will see the new diocesan liturgies as another justification for a permanent break.
Said Harmon: ''You have a collision coming.''
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