The bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, a diocese that includes the Pee Dee and Lowcountry regions of the state, now allows clergy to bless lifelong relationships between same-sex couples. The Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina previously began allowing the blessings on May 8.

Bishop Charles vonRosenberg announced Tuesday that priests in the lower part of the state are now allowed to officiate a ceremony that, while not called a wedding, signifies a lifelong commitment between two partners. Like a wedding ceremony, the phrasing in the liturgy requires both partners to commit to a faithful relationship “as long as you both shall live.” However, same-sex marriage remains illegal under South Carolina law, so the commitment in the eyes of the church will not be recognized in the eyes of the state.

Nationwide, The Episcopal Church began allowing churches to bless same-sex unions in 2012 in response to what a church resolution described as “stories of the urgent pastoral need for these resources in congregations of The Episcopal Church.” Today, more than 60 of The Episcopal Church’s 110 dioceses allow the practice, including 15 of the 20 dioceses in the nine Southeastern states.

In The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, priests are now allowed to use a piece of liturgy called “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” with the requirement that at least one of the partners be a baptized Christian.

The announcement comes during a troubled time for the Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Several large congregations have left the diocese in recent years over perceived theological liberalism on issues including church creeds and the ordination of gay priests. The two factions are now involved in a lawsuit over the disposition of church-owned property, and following court proceedings that began Tuesday in St. George, a judge will soon decide the fate of more than $500 million worth of Episcopal-owned real estate that includes several historical churches in the Charleston area.

Under the bishop’s announcement Tuesday, individual priests will be allowed to decide whether they will bless same-sex relationships. “I do want to be clear that this permission does not define an expectation for clergy,” vonRosenberg writes in his letter to clergy. “In your own life of prayer and within community, you will decide how to respond to this statement of permission.”

The bishop’s letter concludes with a call to unity in the church.

“I commend our continuing journey as a diocese to your prayers, recognizing that differences of opinion and of practice appropriately exist within the greater unity which binds us to one another in Christ,” vonRosenberg writes. “As we take this step in particular, may we be mindful of our baptismal pledge to ‘respect the dignity of every human being,’ all along the way.”

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