By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Episcopal Church took the historic step of redefining marriage in its canons Wednesday, dropping references to a bond between “husband and wife.”

By passing the resolution that cleared the House of Bishops earlier this week, the House of Deputies lifted what had been a key obstacle for advocates of same-sex marriage. It also made the Episcopal Church the only province in the worldwide Anglican Communion to redefine marriage in its canons.

“It’s been two generations we’ve been waiting to do this very thing,” said deputy James Steadman of Northwestern Pennsylvania. “God is doing something here.”

The vote came minutes after the House of Deputies approved new rites for trial use in same-sex blessings and same-sex weddings. The rites avoid references to man, woman, husband and wife, and instead use gender-neutral language. After three years of use, these alternative rites will be eligible for inclusion in the Book of Common Prayer.

Deputies voted overwhelmingly for the changes. Eighty-two percent voted in favor of the canonical change, while 87 favored changing the rites. Before the votes, House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings asked deputies not to cheer out of respect for one another. Deputies took results in stride, with no outbursts.

Debate on the two resolutions was limited to 20 minutes each. Those opposed warned that adopting a new marriage definition would be divisive for the church Catholic, would abandon key theological language of covenant, and would be misleading for those the church tries to guide in the ways of right and wrong.

“We talk about how this leaves room for everyone,” said David Collum, a deputy from the Diocese of Albany. “It doesn’t, not across the world. We are changing the doctrine of this church.”

The church’s canons will no longer say the church holds marriage “to be a lifelong union of husband and wife.” The canons instead now refer simply to “parties.”

In completing language for the new rites, the Special Legislative Committee on Marriage strived for a compromise. The result lets any bishop bar their usage within a diocese, but all bishops are expected to make sure couples have access to the rites. In practice, this could mean that a bishop refers same-sex couples to another nearby diocese where they could be married in an Episcopal service — a practice already exercised by bishops such as Edward S. Little II of Northern Indiana.

“This is one of many bridges we need to build for those who come after us,” said deputy Bruce Garner of the Diocese of Atlanta.

But others warned that changes will harm the Episcopal Church’s ecumenical relationships.

“This will create a schism within our church, and it goes against the charity that we should be showing other Christians,” said Jose Luis Mendoza-Barahona, a deputy and priest from Honduras. He spoke through a translator.

“We should fight for the truth for salvation, and we should not be coerced by a society that tells us to do what’s wrong,” Mendoza-Barahona said. “We are to be transformed.”

One member of the Official Youth Presence stood with the Hondurans and others who opposed the changes.

“This will not make me very popular, but I believe in the sanctity of opposite-sex marriage,” said Holden Holsinger of St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Fenton, Michigan. “In order to maintain the unity of the church, I urge you to not pass this legislation.”

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