BATESVILLE, AR (KAIT) – A controversial issue went before the Episcopal Church's national convention this week, leading to the church's approval of a ceremony to bless same-sex couples.
Delegates overwhelmingly supported a measure that will allow priests to conduct services blessing same-sex relationships.
With the vote, the Episcopal Church has now become the largest denomination in the country to recognize same-sex unions. The move comes nine years after the church elected the first openly gay bishop.
The resounding support from the church's two governing bodies mirrors the excitement felt by local priests, like the Reverend John Drymon of Batesville.
"I'm very encouraged and very excited by the moves of the (Episcopal) General Convention personally," Drymon said.
"I personally think it's a good step for the church, while at the same time, my heart does go out to those faithful Christians within our community who differ."
Rev. Drymon understands that not all his church's members will agree with the new policy, but he says the church as a whole will now become more inclusive.
"This is, again, an opportunity for the church to see how it can include more fully those who are very faithful, important members of our communion," he said.
The policy has been in development since 2009 and allows local bishops to decide whether to allow the service, called "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant."
The service includes an exchange of rings and vows; however, church leaders insist it is not a marriage ceremony, despite the similarities.
The policy also included a provision stating that clergy members who object to same-sex unions cannot be coerced to perform the blessing, or be disciplined for refusing.
Rev. Drymon will have to wait and see if he can perform one of these services, pending approval of his bishop in Little Rock.
"I do hope that one of the things that comes out of this is that those who might have felt left out of the church, those who felt that they couldn't be a part of any church because of their sexual orientation or gender identity," he said, "might be given an opportunity to think again and realize there are Christians out there who don't see this as a threat, don't see it as a sin."
The policy calls for a three-year trial run of the blessing service. It will be reviewed again at the next Episcopal Convention in three years. It's then that church leaders would decide whether to make the policy permanent.
The church's progressive move comes when national public opinion has become more supportive of legalizing gay marriage.
A recent Gallup poll showed 50 percent of Americans think marriage between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law as valid, though only one major U.S. denomination supports the idea outright.
The United Church of Christ endorsed same-sex marriage in 2005.
Just this summer, however, the Presbyterian and Methodist churches rejected measures that would have granted formal church recognition to gay relationships.