Episcopalians on Friday authorized bishops to bless same-sex unions and research an official prayer for the ceremonies, capping a meeting that moved the church closer to accepting gay relationships despite turmoil over the issue in the Anglican family.
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Episcopalians on Friday authorized bishops to bless same-sex unions and research an official prayer for the ceremonies, capping a meeting that moved the church closer to accepting gay relationships despite turmoil over the issue in the Anglican family.
The Episcopal General Convention also underscored the church's desire to remain a full member of the global Anglican Communion. But the actions at the national assembly are likely to damage the already strained relations within the fellowship.
Delegates voted earlier this week to effectively drop a pledge that they would act with "restraint" when considering any more openly gay candidates for bishop.
The Episcopal gay advocacy group Integrity said the church "turned an important corner" with the vote.
But the Rev. Dan Martins of the Diocese of Northern Indiana said he feared the measure would widen the rift with overseas Anglicans.
"On this day, my church is covering itself in shame, and I am profoundly sorry for it," he said.
The Episcopal Church caused an uproar among Anglicans in 2003 by consecrating the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The Anglican spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, has struggled ever since to keep the communion unified.
Anglican leaders had pressed Episcopalians for a moratorium on electing more gay bishops, and asked the church not to develop an official prayer for same-gender couples.
But the measure adopted Friday noted the growing number of U.S. states that allow gay marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships, and gave bishops in those regions discretion to provide a "generous pastoral response" to couples in local parishes.
The resolution also authorized a church commission to "collect and develop theological resources and liturgies" for blessing same-gender relationships for consideration at the next national convention in 2012. Many dioceses already allow clergy to bless same-sex couples, but there is no liturgy for the ceremonies in the denomination's Book of Prayer.
Williams attended the opening days of the convention and told delegates, "I hope and pray that there won't be decisions in the coming days that could push us further apart."
Back in England, he has said only that he regrets the convention's decision to lift the de facto moratorium on gay bishops. The archbishop of Canterbury does not have the authority to force a compromise on the issue because each Anglican province is independently governed.
The 77 million-member communion is the third-largest grouping of churches worldwide, behind Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, head of the Episcopal Church, sent Williams a letter, released publicly Friday, saying that the actions of the convention were not meant to offend and did not mean that all — or any — diocese would necessarily consecrate a gay bishop.
"We remain keenly aware of the concerns and sensibilities of our brothers and sisters in other churches across the communion," she wrote. "We believe also that the honesty reflected in this resolution is essential if we are to live into the deep communion that we all profess and earnestly desire."
David Steinmetz, an expert in Christian history at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, said Anglicanism has always accommodated different views, but "the question now is whether or not they can find enough things to agree about so they can still disagree about other things and stay in the family."
Last month, breakaway Episcopal conservatives and other like-minded traditionalists formed a rival national province to the Episcopal Church called the Anglican Church in North America.
The new body includes four seceding Episcopal dioceses and is supported by several overseas Anglican leaders who have broken ties with the Episcopal Church.
Some traditional Episcopal bishops have stayed with the denomination, but many predicted the latest votes would break the Anglican fellowship. At the end of the convention, about 25 bishops with more conservative Bible views signed a statement that they "reaffirm our commitment to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this church has received them."
Delegates wrapped up the meeting with an emotional debate before over same-sex blessings, then sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" while the votes were counted.
The Rev. Ian Douglas, a scholar of Anglicanism at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said he realized the resolution could "cause turmoil," but he believed the church was "being faithful to God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit."
"Some will want to cast this decision as a choice between our faithfulness to God and our place in the Anglican Communion. But I will not join in," he said. "I pray that our service to God's mission of reconciliation will keep us together."
George Wing, a theological conservative and delegate from the Diocese of Colorado, said he worries that the church's liberal direction has caused active churchgoers to leave.
"The problem is, the most dedicated of the young people are evangelicals. They're gone, and they're not coming back," Wing said.