Capping a 10-day convention in Anaheim, leaders of the Episcopal Church agreed Friday to consider marriage liturgies for same-sex unions and to give bishops greater latitude in meeting the spiritual needs of gay and lesbian couples.
The new policy marked a second victory for liberals after the church gave final approval Tuesday to a measure ending a de facto ban on the ordination of gay bishops.
Debate over liberalizing the rules underlined deep theological differences within the church of 2.1 million Episcopalians, and raised new concerns over tensions with the wider Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the communion.
On Friday, the U.S. church's top two officials sought to calm fellow Anglicans, including the communion's spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
In a letter to Williams, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the president of the church's House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, described the resolution on gay bishops as "more descriptive than prescriptive in nature."
They said it does not repeal the earlier ban on such ordinations, but instead reaffirms commitments made by the church's constitution and canons, which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"In adopting this resolution, it is not our desire to give offense," they wrote. "We remain keenly aware of the concerns and sensibilities of our brothers and sisters in other churches across the communion. We believe also that the honesty reflected in this resolution is essential if indeed we are to live into the deep communion that we all profess and earnestly desire."
Copies of the letter were sent to the communion's 38 other regional leaders.
During the convention, Jefferts Schori voted for the new polices on ordinations and blessings.
In an interview Friday, the Episcopal leader spoke of the need to balance the aspirations of her church with the broader goal of unity.
"Change doesn't happen overnight," she said, predicting that the church would continue to deepen its relations with the Anglican Communion, despite the conflict that erupted after the Episcopal Church's 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop from New Hampshire. Some Anglican leaders from Africa and elsewhere have since cut ties with the U.S. church.
Jefferts Schori also said she believes that the tensions between the church and some Anglicans are less the result of theological differences than varying social norms in different regions of the world.
"I think we are learning more about each other's contexts," she said of the relationships in the communion. "We know more about what it means to be a Christian in Pakistan or North India or Kenya."
The issue of same-sex blessings took up part of the convention's final day of legislative business.
Clergy and laity in the church's House of Deputies voted 152 to 64 to approve the measure, affirming a decision made two days earlier by Episcopal bishops.
The resolution acknowledges "changing circumstances" in the United States and other countries resulting from legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships for gays and lesbians.
It calls for a "renewed pastoral response from this church, and for an open process for the consideration of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships."
A church committee will collect and develop such resources for consideration when the General Convention gathers next in 2012.
The measure gives bishops, particularly those in jurisdictions where gay marriage is legal, discretion to allow same-sex blessings, saying officials may "provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church." Such blessings already are common in some parts of the denomination.
Advocates of change framed the deliberations as matters of compassion and social justice, likening their cause to an uproar over the ordination of women in the 1970s that ultimately led to women being named to the highest ranks of the church.
The blessings measure says the convention honors "the theological diversity of this church in regard to matters of human sexuality" and invites input from within the church and the larger communion.
Opponents questioned whether the large majorities of Episcopal bishops and deputies who embraced the liberalized policies had been moved by cultural trends rather than biblical authority, noting that the Bible defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. They worried that the new direction would accelerate the departure of congregations. Several dozen Episcopal parishes and four dioceses left last year to form a rival church.
The differences were on display Friday during a short debate before deputies voted. One representative described the measure as an "elegant blend of theological care, ecclesiastical breadth and pastoral generosity," while another told the gathering that the church was "covering itself in shame."
Despite the varying interpretations, deputies and bishops alike characterized the legislative debates as prayerful and generous, if messy at times.
"What has happened at the convention are signs of the health and vigor of the Episcopal Church," said Bishop J. Neil Alexander of Atlanta.