NEWARK, N.J., July 18 (RNS) Barring an act of God or cold feet on the part of one of the brides, Catherine and Hannah will walk up the aisle of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, N.J., this fall to have their relationship 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 recording same-sex unions in the church register along with traditional rites of passage such as baptisms, confirmations, and plain old heterosexual marriages.

"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 blessing same-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 the nation's other mainline churches, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), made it clear in recent weeks that they do view homosexuals differently.

At national gatherings in May and June, and at the Episcopalian General Convention in July, the denominations rejected proposals to equate 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 kind of 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 ahead of the institutional church." She gestured toward a cavernous meeting hall full of clerics and bishops, and said "as hierarchical as this looks, we are not a top-down church."

And that means Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and other mainline Christian clerics continue to offer ad hoc rites to gay couples without official sanction, a grass-roots revolution that, in the words 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, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, whose leaders have convicted two pastors in church court for blessing gay couples.

At their quadrennial meeting in Cleveland in May, church delegates voted convincingly to retain the ban on same-sex unions and reiterated their belief that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

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 intend to 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.

"The freedom of ministers to decide what to bless is, at the moment, pretty firmly established. That's viewed as the prerogative of ministry," said the Rev. Barbara Wheeler, a Presbyterian pastor and gay rights supporter who heads Auburn Theological Seminary in New York.

Thus while denominations may have policies against homosexual ordination, they also have statutes declaring that no one can be discriminated against when it comes to church membership as long as they declare themselves believers.

But the prevalence of unsanctioned same-sex blessings is also a function of how much the terrain has shifted beneath the foundations of the old-line churches.

"The only real power that denominations have in the modern world is persuasive as opposed to coercive," said Martin E. Marty, a historian of American religion. "In the old days, to be excommunicated was a real social threat. Now you always have another place to go."

In the meantime, gay and lesbian Christians say they hope to convince the conservatives--or at least the rest of their church members--that they are conscientious believers who are an asset, not a threat, to their congregations, especially in an era of broadly declining rolls.

Indeed, homosexual activists in the church make it clear they do not disdain tradition or theology or the institutional church.

Rather, they insist on blessing only gay couples in healthy, committed relationships that will reflect the highest standards of a Christian union. And they say they want officially recognized same-sex rites because they believe it is through a standard liturgy that they can promote solid relationships among homosexuals and become fully accepted church members.

While the prospects for a breakthrough on this issue have been put on hold at least for a few years, the results from this season of church conventions have clearly revealed the political dynamic that currently prevails in American Protestantism: Namely, that even if gay activists cannot get their agenda enshrined in church law just yet, neither do conservatives have enough influence to enforce a sweeping ban.

In this vacuum, gay and lesbian Christians are moving to claim their rights.

"The more gays and lesbians stand up and say, 'This is who I am and this is what I believe,' the more we will move forward," said the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, head of the Newark diocese's ministry to homosexuals and the woman who is preparing Catherine and Hannah for their October ceremony--whatever that service will be called.

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