The local Episcopal bishop has given priests in the diocese permission to perform a rite blessing lifelong same-sex relationships, adding another spark to the fiery debate taking place in denominations nationwide.

Bishop Charles vonRosenberg issued a letter to clergy Tuesday notifying them he is allowing use of "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant."

The rite allows priests to bless same-sex couples with: "I now pronounce that they are bound to one another in a holy covenant, as long as they both shall live."

While the rite blesses relationships, in which at least one partner is baptized, it does not constitute marriage. South Carolina law doesn't allow same-sex marriages.

"It's a very courageous move given what is going on with the Episcopal split. The bishop is moving forward with what has been lacking in this diocese," said Grace Episcopal Church member Doug McCoy, who last year married his partner of 37 years in Washington, D.C. "It's not a popular position, but it should have been done years ago."

Bishop vonRosenberg leads The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, part of the national Episcopal Church, where support for gay clergy and same-sex unions created a firestorm that prompted some bishops and parishes, including in South Carolina, to separate from it.

The bishop's letter was released just hours after a much-anticipated trial over the local split began Tuesday in a St. George circuit court.

Control over whether to offer the blessings locally will rest in the hands of individual priests and vestries of churches.

In his letter, vonRosenberg emphasizes that priests aren't required to offer the blessing.

"I do want to be clear that this permission does not define an expectation for clergy," he writes. "In your own life of prayer and within community, you will decide how to respond to this statement of permission."

Each church's vestry or mission committee also can take up the issue. Before priests can perform the ceremony in a church building, the elected vestry must have given approval for the blessings to be conducted there.

Priests who opt to perform the rite can do so in other non-church venues without additional diocesan approval.

Joy Hunter, spokeswoman for local parishes that left the national church, reiterated that their diocese upholds marriage as between a man and a woman.

"The Episcopal Church in South Carolina is certainly free to decide to make this policy if they choose, just as we are free to choose to leave The Episcopal Church and continue to be guided by theological principles protected and practiced by generations," Hunter said.

The Rev. David A. Williams, rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal in Charleston, plans to preside over two weddings in coming months for gay couples in states where same-sex marriage is legal. When they return to Charleston, he will provide them the Episcopal blessing.

Doug Warner and his partner, Truman Smith, are members at Grace Episcopal who applauded the move - with a caveat.

"It's absolutely a step in the right direction," Warner said. "However, it's not enough. We offer a blessing of the animals, and we're just now saying it's okay to bless same-sex couples."

He'd prefer The Episcopal Church offer a full marriage ceremony, even if it isn't recognized by the state.

"It would be nice one day to stand in our home congregation in the faith we hold dear and have the same recognition others do," Warner said.

In 2012, The Episcopal Church's General Convention authorized provisional use of same-sex blessings. Since then, at least 60 of its 110 dioceses have allowed some form of liturgy for those blessings.

In the nine southeastern states, 15 of the 20 dioceses allow the blessings. In the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, which covers the Midlands and Upstate, Bishop Andrew Waldo announced May 8 that he would permit them. (The local diocese covers the coastal half of the state.)

Nationwide, denominations have been wrangling for years over theological issues surrounding same-sex relationships.

Just weeks ago, The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow pastors to perform same-sex marriages in states where they are legal. And the debate rages today in the United Methodist Church after a minister was defrocked after performing a same-sex marriage ceremony for his gay son.

Other groups that allow same-sex marriage include Reform and Conservative Jews, Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ. Evangelical Lutherans give ministers the option.

Those strictly against same-sex marriage include the Southern Baptist Convention, Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and many evangelical Protestant groups. Muslims also don't allow it.

The local bishop noted that debate continues.

"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 in his letter.

The entire "Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant" is available at episcopalchurchsc.org.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.