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By Carolyn Click, The State (Columbia, SC)

COLUMBIA, SC — A South Carolina Episcopal leader told clergy Thursday that he will permit congregations to perform blessings of same-sex couples, a decision reached after two years of theological discussions with pastors and parishioners.

The Rt. Rev. W. Andrew Waldo, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, said no clergy would be required to perform the rite. He said he will support all 61 of his congregations whether they choose to carry out the blessing ritual or not.

Waldo emphasized that it was strictly an ecclesiastical decision. South Carolina has not legalized same-sex marriages or civil unions, although 17 states and the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriage.

The decision is expected to once again roil a state where many Episcopalians already have left the U.S. church in great numbers. Waldo, who often describes himself as a “radical centrist,” believes that by staking out a middle ground, he can keep his diocese from splintering.

“We would prefer to be together rather than apart,” Waldo said in an interview Wednesday.

The bishop said Wednesday he does not expect a flood of inquiries about performing the rite. He will require congregations and clergy to study the issue before seeking his permission.

Same-sex couples, like heterosexual couples, would undergo counseling, and at least one must be a baptized member of an Episcopal congregation. An Episcopalian whose congregation chooses not to perform the rite could approach a priest at a congregation that does.

In making the case for the blessing of same-sex relationships, Waldo said he “went head-on” with biblical scriptures that depict homosexuality as a sin against nature; studied the half-century debate within the U.S. church and the Anglican Communion over same-sex relationships; and examined the modern secular movement toward marriage equality and recognition of same-sex marriage.

“Recognizing that there is deep disagreement about this, I will argue that there is a firm biblical basis from which to shape a common life in which lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships can receive the blessing of the church,” Waldo wrote.

Waldo said he has been moved by stories of faithful gay and lesbian parishioners who have felt marginalized by the church.

“In the end, there is no legal force to what we do,” Waldo said. “It is a way for a gay or lesbian couple to live within the deepest Christian values for relationships between two people who are going to give their life to each other.”

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