Vermont's Episcopal Diocese has become the first in the country to develop a liturgy — a script for a religious service — in response to a state law making same-sex unions legal.

"We have been living with the legal reality of same-sex unions for over three years," Bishop Thomas Ely (search) said in a statement made public Friday. "It is appropriate and timely for the Diocese of Vermont (search) to prepare and use these services for members of our congregations."

In 2000, Vermont became the first state to offer legal recognition to same-sex unions. The state did not legalize same-sex marriage, but established a parallel system of civil unions to offer gay and lesbian couples most of the same benefits and responsibilities that married couples have.

Some Episcopal dioceses have already sanctioned same-sex unions. But Vermont's is the first to do so in a jurisdiction that offers legal recognition to such unions.

It also is the first to do so in such a comprehensive manner, said Stan Baker, senior warden — similar to chairman of the board — of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral (search), the Vermont Diocese's headquarters church in Burlington.

Baker was also the lead plaintiff in the case that produced what is widely called the Baker decision, a December 1999 Vermont Supreme Court ruling that called on the Legislature to offer something akin to marriage to gays and lesbians.

"There isn't another diocese that has this complete a policy, with theological background supporting it, the liturgy itself and resources for the couple," Baker said. Those include a plan for pastoral counseling of couples before they enter into what will be known as a holy union, he said.

The specifics are spelled out in a 36-page report prepared by an 18-member task force that Ely appointed last year. It was to be presented to clergy and lay leaders within the 51-church diocese in two public sessions: one Friday at St. James Episcopal Church in Arlington; and another Saturday at Christ Episcopal Church in Montpelier.

Baker and Ely emphasized in an interview that Episcopalians value the fact that liturgies are determined by the church's national leadership.

"In the Episcopal tradition having a liturgy is very important to people," Baker said. He said the 2000 ceremony blessing his civil union with Peter Harrigan "felt very complete to me," but "I was aware we were putting it together ourselves."

Anne Clarke Brown, director of communications for the diocese and also a partner in a civil union, said "it's really a conservative desire on the part of gay and lesbian couples to have our relationships recognized in the church. We want to be held accountable to the same values" as a woman and man making what are meant to be lifelong vows.

The national church, the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (search), resolved at its General Convention last year that "local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions."

The convention addressed same-sex unions only; it did not address same-sex marriages. In Massachusetts, which last month became the first state to legalize same-sex marriages, Bishop M. Thomas Shaw has come under fire from some liberals after instructing priests in the diocese that they could officiate at same-sex holy unions but not same-sex marriages.

The Rev. Jan Nunley, a spokeswoman for the national church, summed up its current stance this way: "If you're a same-sex couple you can't get married in the Episcopal Church. You can have your relationship blessed in some dioceses of the Episcopal Church. The issue of [same-sex] marriage has not been broached before the General Convention."

The next General Convention in 2006 is expected to debate whether the church should bless gay and lesbian marriages, she added.

It's already a hot topic in church circles, with groups forming to push for church-sanctioned same-sex marriage, and others to oppose such a move as well as the ordination of gay bishops, as happened last year in New Hampshire.

Vermont's bishop said the "revised policy and the liturgical resources being provided for trial use are in response to a clear pastoral need in this diocese."

Ely, Baker and Brown all acknowledged that conservatives in the church were opposed to blessing same-sex unions, and that many members of other branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion, particularly in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, would find it difficult to come to grips with the issue.

They said the best solution would be respectful conversation and acknowledged it might take time. "Come and talk to us," Baker said.