The U.S. Episcopal Church voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to let gay couples wed in the denomination's religious ceremonies, reinforcing its support for same-sex nuptials days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.
The Rev. Bonnie Perry of Chicago, a lesbian married to a fellow Episcopal priest, hugged fellow supporters on Wednesday and said, "We're all included now."
The Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, became in 2012 the largest U.S. religious denomination to approve a liturgy for clergy to use in blessing same-sex unions, including gay marriages in states where they were already legal.
While some clergy and lay members disagreed with the proposal put before the Church's triennial convention, held in Salt Lake City, the faith's House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops, which overwhelmingly approved the measure in a separate vote on Tuesday.
"In 1976, the Church promised full and equal claim to LGBT members, and we've spent those years making that resolution a reality," said the Rev. Susan Russell of the Diocese of Los Angeles.
"Today's action is a huge step ... toward a promised land of a Church that fully includes all its members," she said.
But the Rev. Neal Michell, dean of St. Matthew's Cathedral in Dallas, said he opposed such unions 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."
Under the new rules, clergy can opt out of performing gay marriage ceremonies.
The Episcopal Church is the 14th largest U.S. religious denomination, with about 2 million members, according to the National Council of Churches.
The vote eliminates gender-specific language from church laws on marriage so that same-sex couples could have religious weddings. Instead of "husband" and "wife," for example, the new church law will refer to "the couple." Under the new rules, clergy can decline to perform the ceremonies. The changes were approved 173-27. The deputies also approved a gender-neutral prayer service for marriage on a 184-23 vote.
The measures take effect the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 29.
In 2003, its members elected Gene Robinson, who lived with his male partner, as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, leading to fractious relations with conservative Episcopal dioceses in the United States and some members of the global Anglican Communion, especially in Africa.
The Episcopal Church joins two other mainline Protestant groups that allowed gay marriage in all their congregations: the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The 3.8-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America lets its congregations decide for themselves, and many of them host gay weddings.
The United Methodist Church, by far the largest mainline Protestant church with 12.8 million members, bars gay marriage, although many of its clergy have been officiating at same-sex weddings recently in protest.
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. wing of the Anglican Communion, an 80 million-member global fellowship of churches. Ties among Anglicans have been strained since Episcopalians in 2003 elected Bishop Gene Robinson, who lived openly with his male partner, to lead the Diocese of New Hampshire. Many theologically conservative Episcopalians either split off or distanced themselves from the national U.S. church after Robinson's election.