The Episcopal Church, casting aside warnings about further alienating conservatives within its ranks, on Tuesday lifted a de facto ban on the ordination of gay bishops and is continuing to weigh a measure that would sanction blessings for same-sex couples.
Bishops, clergy and lay leaders voted overwhelmingly at the denomination's General Convention in Anaheim to open "any ordained ministry" to gays and lesbians.
The liberalized policy represents a reversal from guidelines adopted by the church at its last convention in 2006 that effectively prohibited the consecration of bishops whose "manner of life" would strain relations with the 77-million member Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the communion.
The new approach is likely to deepen theological fissures that led some traditionalist Episcopal congregations and dioceses last month to form a rival church. And it is almost certain to trigger a backlash among conservative Anglican leaders who have urged the U.S. church to refrain from relaxing ordination and marriage standards.
But progressives in the 2.1-million member denomination said the move toward inclusion reflects the reality of a church that is home to many partnered gays and lesbians who belong to parishes that encourage their involvement and already bless their unions.
"Being an Episcopalian means you can disagree and still worship together," said the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles. "We're going to leave the door open for all those who disagree with us to find a place here and peace here."
Tensions have been mounting since 2003, when a partnered gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, was consecrated as bishop of New Hampshire. Several conservative Anglican leaders, especially in Africa, cut ties to the U.S. church after his election.
The spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, had expressed apprehension during a brief visit to the conference last week about decisions "that could push us further apart."
On Tuesday, an elated Robinson celebrated the lopsided vote in the church's two legislative bodies -- the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, composed of clergy and laity.
"I'm simply delighted at the possibility that another diocese will recognize the gifts of a gay or lesbian clergy person," he said. "I long for the day when someone who shares my experience as an openly gay bishop joins me in the House of Bishops. It has been lonely."
But a bishop who left the church last year predicted that the decisions made in Anaheim would increase strains with disaffected conservatives.
"Clearly the activists have done a good job promoting their agenda," said the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, a founding bishop of the newly formed Anglican Church in North America, which hopes to gain recognition from the Anglican Communion as a rival province to the Episcopal Church.
"The generosity shown by the rest of the communion has been astonishing and has been thrown back in their face," Minns said. "There will have to be a renegotiation of how the Episcopal Church fits into the family."
The measure to consecrate gay bishops won the support of more than two-thirds of the denomination's two legislative houses. The church's presiding bishop, the Most. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, also supported it.
The resolution seeks to reassure Anglican leaders about the U.S. church's loyalty, saying that the convention reaffirms its "abiding commitment" and financial support for the communion.
But the measure also affirms that "God has called" gays and lesbians in partnered relationships to "any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church," adding that the call "is a mystery which the church attempts to discern for all people."
Church leaders said the new policy does not repeal the 3-year-old moratorium but instead calls for Episcopal officials to abide by church canons, which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Debate on a separate measure concerning blessings for same-sex unions is expected today in the House of Bishops, which postponed a vote Tuesday after members asked for more time to discuss the issue.
The measure would allow bishops to "provide generous pastoral response" to gay and lesbian couples, but it would not require those who object to deliver the blessings. Several bishops and lay leaders said they expected a compromise that would permit blessings.
The Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity USA, a group that represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the church, said the Anaheim convention would send a message to the global communion that the church is "committed to both honesty and unity."
But Russell acknowledged the potential for continued conflict.
"There are absolutely challenges," she said. "There is no attempting to skirt the fact that what we are doing is stepping beyond where many in the communion would prefer we go."