NEWARK, N.J., July 18 (RNS) Barring an act of God or cold feet on the part of one ofthe brides, Catherine and Hannah will walk up the aisle of the EpiscopalChurch of the Redeemer in Morristown, N.J., this fall to have theirrelationship blessed in a service that will be a Christian wedding in everything but name--and even that isn't out of bounds.

"I call it a sacramental marriage," said the Rev. Phillip Wilson,Redeemer's pastor and a cleric who goes the extra step of recordingsame-sex unions in the church register along with traditional rites ofpassage such as baptisms, confirmations, and plain old heterosexualmarriages.

"Obviously it's not a legal marriage and I won't pretend it is,"Wilson said. "But if you come at it from the premise that blessingsame-sex unions is the same as blessing any other union, why would you treat it any differently?"

In fact, leaders of Wilson's Episcopal Church and two of thenation's other mainline churches, the United Methodist Church and thePresbyterian Church (USA), made it clear in recent weeks that they doview homosexuals differently.

At national gatherings in May and June, and at the EpiscopalianGeneral Convention in July, the denominations rejected proposals toequate gays with straights in the eyes of the church, and the Methodist and Presbyterian leaders moved to reinforce existing church teachings against homosexuality.

Yet even as the denominations try to maintain order in their ranks,pastors across the country are turning the most contentious argument in today's churches into a moot point by continuing to bless gay and lesbian relationships. It is, in effect, a classically Protestant statement of defiance: The clergy is simply bypassing the churches'central authorities.

"The reality is that the polity of the churches allows for the kindof muddiness and messiness that allows us to stay," the Rev. Susan Russell, an openly lesbian Episcopal priest from Los Angeles who heads the church's national ministry to homosexuals, said last week at the Episcopalian powwow in Denver.

"It is my experience that the spirit of God continues to move aheadof the institutional church." She gestured toward a cavernous meetinghall full of clerics and bishops, and said "as hierarchical as this looks, we arenot a top-down church."

And that means Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, andother mainline Christian clerics continue to offer ad hoc rites to gaycouples without official sanction, a grass-roots revolution that, in thewords of one critic, "puts the cart of liturgy before the horse of theology."

But the reality is far ahead of either theology or liturgy.

Consider the facts: In the Episcopal diocese of Newark, N.J., alone, priests have been blessing perhaps a dozen homosexual relationships a year, even in some fairly traditional parishes. "Nobody blinks an eye," one pastor said.

Indeed, about 60 of the nation's 107 Episcopal dioceses are on record as supporting gay rights in the church, and it is common knowledge that same-sex rites are quietly conducted in most of the others.

Then there is the 8.4 million-member United Methodist Church, thenation's second-largest Protestant denomination, whose leaders haveconvicted two pastors in church court for blessing gay couples.

At their quadrennial meeting in Cleveland in May, church delegatesvoted convincingly to retain the ban on same-sex unions and reiteratedtheir belief that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christianteaching."

Yet across the nation, hundreds of Methodist congregations have openly declared their support for same-sex couples in defiance of those resolutions. One of the convicted pastors, the Rev. Gregory Dell, returned to his Chicago pulpit this month after serving a yearlong suspension and vowed to keep doing what he was doing.

"As long as I'm doing weddings for heterosexual couples...I intendto do those for gay and lesbian couples," Dell said.

Dell has reason to feel safe since Methodist leaders recently decided against charging 67 pastors in California who jointly officiated at the blessing of a lesbian couple's relationship.

The 3.6 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) is in a similar strait.

Last month at their annual meeting in Long Beach, Calif., church delegates narrowly voted to retain a ban on same-sex unions but asked local presbyteries to affirm the decision, which they may not do. In the meantime, many Presbyterian ministers have said they will continue to bless gay couples.

And in the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), it is much the same, as several regional synods have publicly stated they support same-sex relationships despite official church disapproval.

How can this be? Aren't churches supposed to be models of unanimity in belief and uniformity in behavior?

Not exactly.

Historically, Protestantism has always viewed the primacy of individual conscience and personal autonomy as highly important values. And these traits make the so-called "local option" appealing to all sides.