SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Episcopalians were set to vote Wednesday on allowing religious weddings for gay couples, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
In 2003, the denomination made history by electing its first openly gay bishop. Since then, many Episcopal dioceses have allowed their priests to perform civil same-sex weddings. Still, the church hadn’t changed its laws on marriage.
The vote was set for late afternoon in Salt Lake City at the denomination’s national assembly.
The proposal would eliminate gender-specific language from church laws on marriage so that same-sex couples could have religious weddings. Members of the clergy could still decline to perform the ceremonies.
The Episcopal Church, with nearly 1.9 million members, has included many of the Founding Fathers and presidents.
Among mainline Protestant groups, only the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), both of which are smaller than the Episcopal Church, allow same-sex weddings in all their congregations.
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.
On the eve of the U.S. vote, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, issued a statement expressing deep concern about the move to change the definition of marriage.
Robinson, now retired, said he is breathless about how quickly gay rights have gained acceptance since the days when he was getting death threats and forced to wear a bulletproof vest to his consecration 12 years ago.
“Conservative churches are hemorrhaging young people because young people today have gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender friends,” Robinson said. “In increasing numbers, they do not want to belong to a church that condemns their friends that they know to be wonderful people.”
Faith groups across the spectrum of belief, from the Episcopal Church to the Southern Baptists, have been losing members as more Americans say they identify with no particular religion. The Episcopal Church has shrunk 18 percent over the last decade, after more than a generation of steady decline.
After the Supreme Court ruling last week, many conservative churches, including the Southern Baptists and the Mormons, renewed their opposition to gay marriage.
The Episcopal Church has already made history during the convention, electing its first black presiding bishop. Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina won in a landslide over the weekend.
Curry has allowed same-sex church weddings in North Carolina, and he said the Supreme Court “affirmed the authenticity of love” by legalizing gay marriage.