Applause broke out during Rev. Terry Pannell’s sermon Sunday at St. Mary of the Harbor Episcopal Church, an unusual occurrence.

Applause broke out during Rev. Terry Pannell’s sermon Sunday at St. Mary of the Harbor Episcopal Church, an unusual occurrence.

But congregants were excited, Pannell said, at the announcement that churches under the authority of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts — which covers Episcopal churches in the eastern portion of the state — could now perform same-sex weddings.

Previously church leaders were limited to wedding “blessings” but could not sign the legal marriage certificate required by the state.

“All the clergy got the announcement late Saturday. I threw out my entire sermon. When I read [the order], before I got halfway through, people broke out in applause. It was wonderful,” Pannell said.

The decision was made by Bishop M. Thomas Shaw III, head of the Diocese of Massachusetts. However, his order does not extend to the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, a more conservative diocese.

“Christian marriage is a sacramental rite that has evolved in the church. … It must be open to all as a means of grace and sustenance to our Christian hope,” Shaw, a long-time supporter of gay rights, said in his letter. “We have not arrived at this place in our common life easily or quickly. We have not done it alone. This decision comes after a long process of listening, prayer and discernment leading up to and continuing after General Convention’s action this past summer.”

Shaw was referring to the Episcopal Church’s general convention last summer approved legislation declaring that church elders could provide “generous pastoral response” to same-sex church members.

Pannell said he performs approximately a dozen same-sex wedding blessings a year, where the ceremony is held in the church but not solemnized, as required by law. As a result, there will be little change in the logistics at St. Mary’s. But emotionally, he said, the bishop’s announcement is extraordinary.

“This is significant historically,” he said, adding that the Diocese of Massachusetts was the first in the Anglican Communion to elect a female bishop, Rev. Barbara Harris, in 1988.

“It’s been a long time coming. Some of us wanted this to happen far more quickly. But it has happened,” he said of the same-sex marriage announcement.

Provincetown Banner writer Pru Sowers can be reached at psowers@provincetownbanner.com