Same-sex Anglican disunion

The couple holds hands before the altar as a priest guides them through their vows. "I take you to have and to hold from this day forward, to love and to cherish, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, as my companion, lover and friend."

The congregation responds: "Blessed be God who appears to us in their love."

There is the exchanging of rings, familiar scriptures, a kiss and a blessing on the couple's "acts of tenderness and intimacy." They may be crowned or anointed before Holy Communion. The priest may lead them in a procession around the altar, cover them with a veil or tie their hands with a cord.

This is not a wedding.

Nevertheless, "A Rite for the Celebration of Commitment to a Life Together" features a barrage of symbols from centuries of marriage rites. This 1996 text is an American example of the same-sex union rites that are shaking the 70-million-member Anglican Communion.

"This rite is clearly parasitic on marriage," said Edith Humphrey, a Canadian Anglican who teaches at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. "At least this American rite is in your face, so you know what is being communicated. That kind of candor is refreshing. ... This certainly looks like a marriage rite."

But most supporters say these rites merely bless existing same-sex relationships. This distinction is crucial, according to Vancouver School of Theology liturgist Richard Leggett.

"Despite some similarities to the marriage rite, the underlying theology and the distinctive liturgical elements define a covenant that is unique and that poses no threat to marriage as the sacramental union of a heterosexual couple," argued Leggett, commenting on a new Canadian rite.

Instead, this gives "liturgical expression to a new thing that God is doing in our midst, life-long stable and covenanted relationships for gay and lesbian disciples of Christ."

There is fire behind these academic words. After decades of guerrilla tactics, open Anglican warfare has erupted on three fronts.

In Canada, Bishop Michael Ingham -- after numerous delays -- on May 23 issued a same-sex union rite for use in his Diocese of New Westminster. Meanwhile, the Diocese of New Hampshire elected Father Gene Robinson as the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop, guaranteeing pre-consecration debates at the U.S. General Convention that begins July 30 in Minneapolis.

That gathering also faces a California resolution seeking rites to express the church's blessing on "all couples living in life-long committed relationships of mutuality and fidelity outside the relationship of marriage, which mediate the grace of God."

Then Oxford Bishop Richard Harries appointed Father Jeffrey John, a gay theologian, as bishop of Reading. Nine evangelical bishops in England have publicly vowed a fight. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called for dialogue, yet signaled he will not oppose John's appointment.

What is at stake? Sixteen Third-World archbishops from Kenya, South India, Uganda, the Philippines, Sudan, Tanzania and elsewhere responded to Ingham by declaring a state of "severed communion" with his diocese.

Archbishop Peter Akinola told the BBC that Nigeria -- with 10 archbishops, 81 bishops and 17.5 million Anglicans -- would "sever relationships with anybody, anywhere, anyone who strays over the boundaries" of traditional church doctrine. Robinson's election, he told the Guardian in Lagos, is "a Satanic attack on God's church."

But there is more to this debate than sex, said Humphrey. The new Canadian rite makes a crucial claim: "All human relationships have the potential to be agents of God's purpose. Regardless of the specific characteristics of the relationship, the act of blessing does not make the relationship more holy but rather, in giving thanks to God and invoking God's holy name, releases the relationship to realize its full potential as an expression of God's love."

This raises all kinds of questions about words such as "fidelity," "covenant," "sacrament" and "union," she said. In a marriage rite, God and the church create something new -- a sacred union that changes the relationship between the man and the woman. These new rites insist that the church is merely "blessing" an existing same-sex relationship.

"The whole premise is different. The relationship is already holy. It is already sacramental," she said. "The church is merely celebrating what the couple is already doing."