As anguished conservatives protested the confirmation of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, church leaders weary of debating homosexuality are tackling yet another divisive issue: blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
The House of Bishops, composed of bishops from around the country, voted Wednesday to reject a proposal to draft an official liturgy for the ceremonies which are already performed in some parishes.
But by voice vote, they overwhelmingly approved a document saying: "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."
There was disagreement over the significance of the statement, which needs final approval from the clergy and laity in the House of Deputies. A vote could come as soon as Thursday.
Bishops already decide whether to permit same-sex blessing ceremonies in their own dioceses.
But the Episcopal gay advocacy groups Claiming the Blessing and Integrity said that, if approved, the measure would be the first time the church acknowledged in a national document that such ceremonies are held.
Bishop Robert Ilhoff of Maryland said the statement had little practical effect: "It continues the policy that is in effect in all our dioceses."
Ilhoff said he understood why gay advocates would consider it a victory, because it brings the practice "to the surface."
Bishop Keith Ackerman of Quincy, Ill., called it "recognition without approval" that allows bishops to continue to set local policy.
Three bishops_ in Kansas, New Hampshire and Delaware _ authorize same-sex blessings, according to the Rev. Michael Hopkins, president of Integrity. Other dioceses bar them, while some bishops have a "don't ask, don't tell" approach, overlooking the ceremonies priests perform.
Gay advocates had hoped that confirmation of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson at this week's General Convention would build momentum toward approval for an official ceremony.
Robinson, a 56-year-old divorced father of two, has lived with his male partner for 13 years. He was confirmed Tuesday after he was cleared of last-minute misconduct allegations that threatened to delay the vote.
In the bishops' vote on same-sex ceremonies, Utah Bishop Otis Charles, who revealed he was gay in 1993 after he retired, spoke of how he felt "diminished" during years of church debate over homosexuality.
"You cannot understand the experience that it is for every gay and lesbian member of the Episcopal Church when this house debates whether or not our relationships can be acknowledged, honored and celebrated," Charles said.
Conservatives angered by Robinson's election smeared ashes on their foreheads in a sign of mourning and penance Wednesday, boycotted legislative sessions and dropped to their knees in prayer on the floor of the House of Deputies.
A handful of the more than 800 clergy and lay delegates either walked off the floor of the meeting or collectively stayed away, while at least three of the nearly 300 bishops refused to participate or went home, saying their distraught parishioners needed them.
In an interview earlier Wednesday with The Associated Press, Robinson said he hoped his critics would not leave the church, though he disagrees with their view that gay sex violates Scripture.
"I think they're wrong about this," he said. "I think they'll come to know that they are wrong, in this life or the next one."
Robinson said he values diversity within Anglicanism and hoped his critics will too. The Episcopal Church, with 2.3 million members, is the U.S. branch of the 77 million-member global Anglican Communion.
Anglicans in many parts of the world reacted angrily Wednesday to Robinson's confirmation, with some threatening to cut ties with the American church. The Anglicans' spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, appealed for opponents not to act rashly but acknowledged it would inevitably have a "significant impact" on the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The American Anglican Council, which represents conservative Episcopalians, planned a meeting Oct. 7-9 in Plano, Texas, to decide whether it will break from the church. The council organized a worship service Wednesday for those who reject Robinson's ratification. About 300 people participated, some weeping openly during prayer.
If conservatives do decide to break away, it was unclear what that would mean for the church. Some parishes could split from their dioceses and refuse to recognize clergy who support homosexuality, but stop short of a complete separation.
A full schism would trigger, among other things, bitter fights over parish assets and undercut the global influence of the U.S. church.