MINNEAPOLIS — The Episcopal Church officially acknowledged Thursday that unauthorized blessings for same-sex unions have been taking place in the church but stopped short of either forbidding or endorsing the practice.
The declaration by priests and lay members in the church's House of Deputies mirrored a finding Wednesday by the House of Bishops at the church's 74th triennial General Convention, which ends here today.
While the resolution was not an endorsement or authorization for same-sex blessings, its mere acknowledgment that such ceremonies were taking place was seen by supporters and opponents alike as tacit approval by the church's highest law-making body to leave the decisions on blessing the unions to local bishops.
"It is descriptive of a fact in our church that is long standing and says that this is within the bounds of our common life," said the Rev. Francis H. Wade of Washington, chairman of the deputies committee that drafted the measure.
The votes on same-sex blessings as well as the confirmation Tuesday of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as the church's first openly gay bishop marked a historic week for one of the nation's oldest and most influential churches -- and perhaps for any church claiming an unbroken line of bishops dating back to the time of Jesus.
The votes on same-sex blessings and confirmation of Robinson as the incoming Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire placed the church -- in decades past a bastion of ecclesiastical traditionalism and political conservatism -- into the national debate on homosexuality.
The votes also have raised tensions in the 2.3-million member denomination and have prompted warnings from conservatives of schism and appeals to conservative Anglican archbishops overseas to intervene to save the U.S. church from itself. The Episcopal Church is one of 38 self-governing national churches affiliated with the worldwide Anglican Communion, whose spiritual leader is the archbishop of Canterbury.
Bishops in only three of the U.S. church's 110 dioceses -- in Delaware, Kansas and New Hampshire -- have allowed their priests to officiate at same-sex blessings, although it is estimated that another 20 have looked the other way as priests respond to the pastoral needs of gays and lesbians.
"We recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions," the resolution said.
With 55 votes needed for passage among priests and lay deputies, the resolution won 58 votes among lay deputies and 62 among priests.
The Rev. Susan Russell, executive director of Claiming the Blessing, a Pasadena-based gay and lesbian advocacy group, said the church had created "elbow room" for bishops who have hesitated to allow their priests to bless same-sex unions.
Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop J. Jon Bruno, as well as his predecessor, have long allowed priests in the six-county diocese to bless same-sex unions. "I've always believed in the blessing of same-sex unions," Bruno said in an interview. "I believe that if we're going to welcome gay people as the wonderful, integral part of our church that they are, that we have to support the blessings of their unions."
Although the convention struck down a controversial provision in the resolution that would have directed the national church to draft liturgies for eventual church-wide use for such ceremonies, gay and lesbian advocates said they were pleased.
"I'm happy. But if I had my druthers it would have been a bigger step," Russell said.
The Rev. Michael Hopkins, president of the gay and lesbian group Integrity, said formal Episcopal services for blessing same-sex couples were "inevitable."
Conservatives were already reeling from the confirmation of Robinson, a 56-year-old divorced man with two adult children who has lived with his partner, Mark Andrew, for 13 years.
Robinson was elected bishop earlier this summer by the priests and lay leaders of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Under Episcopal Church rules, the election of bishops by local dioceses must be approved by a majority of the nation's dioceses.
During debate Thursday, conservatives again warned that the Episcopal Church was separating itself from 2,000 years of Christian tradition and teaching against homosexuality.
"We are not only called to love one another. We are called to be holy as God himself is holy," said the Rev. Jeff Cerar of Heathsville, Va. "To approve these same-sex blessings is to move not closer to holiness but away from holiness."
But Elizabeth Panilaitis, a deputy from Watertown, Conn., said, "I was always shown love in this church, God's love, the love between parents and children.... We live in a world full of hate and war. We need to find all the love we can in this world."
The Rev. J. Edwin Bacon, Jr., rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, told the deputies that blessing same-sex unions would prompt church growth. "We now have the opportunity to celebrate the expansion of the bounds of our community in the Episcopal Church," he said.
Carole Ross, an opponent from Lakeland, Fla., said, "You get to a point where you are shocked so much you are no longer shocked. After so much saturation, there becomes acceptance. For Christians, there cannot be acceptance of what is wrong."
In a minority report to deputies, the Rev. Kendall Harmon of South Carolina wrote, "This resolution is a complete and arrogant repudiation of the clear intention of the leaders of our church." He noted that a meeting of Anglican primates in Brazil in June said that they could not, "as a body," support the authorization of such rites. Backers of same-sex unions, however, said the language was ambiguous enough to allow self-governing national churches flexibility.