The Episcopal Church has approved a new liturgy that allows priests and bishops to provide official blessings for same-sex marriages. The new rites were proposed and approved at the Church's General Convention this week and could go into effect by the end of the year. Some local dioceses have allowed their priests to officiate at or bless same sex marriages in states where they are legal, but the new proposal offers official guidelines for Church members to follow.
To be clear, the new blessing does not mean that gay couples can be officially married within the Church, though several bishops voted against the measure because of concerns that it would be interpreted as such. It also includes an amendment stating that officials who object to or refuse to administer the rites cannot be punished or coerced into doing so. However, the move is still being hailed as a major step forward for gay rights and a move for inclusion in a church that (like many denominations in America) has seen a big decline in attendance and membership. The House of Bishops also approved an anti-discrimination measure that would allow transgendered people to become Church ministers or lay leaders.
The U.S. Episcopal Church is already the largest Christian denomination to ordain gay priests and bishops and was among the first to promote the ordination of women as bishops. The promotion of its first gay man to bishop in 2003 caused a rift within the larger worldwide Anglican Church, which has led several congregations to "breakaway" from other Episcopalians in the United States.