MINNEAPOLIS -- Though weary of debating homosexuality, Episcopal church leaders followed up their first-ever confirmation of a gay bishop by rejecting a proposal to draft standard language to bless same-sex couples.
But in another move with unclear implications, the House of Bishops on Wednesday also overwhelmingly approved a document addressing such ceremonies.
"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 statement reads.
Wednesday's votes by the bishops from around the country came even as conservatives continued to protest the confirmation of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop -- an act that gay advocates had hoped would build momentum toward approval for an official ceremony.
Bishops already decide whether to permit same-sex blessing ceremonies in their own dioceses.
In the voting, 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.
There was disagreement over the significance of the bishops' statement, which passed by voice vote and still needs final approval from the clergy and laity in the House of Deputies. A vote could come as soon as Thursday.
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.
The debate at this week's General Convention followed the contentious confirmation of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, a 56-year-old divorced father of two who 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.
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.
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.
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