MINNEAPOLIS -- Episcopal leaders said Thursday they rejected a proposal to draft standard language for blessing same-sex couples partly out of concern for church unity following the contentious confirmation of their first openly gay bishop.
The House of Bishops overwhelmingly approved a watered-down statement recognizing that same-sex unions are being blessed in local dioceses. The measure requires final approval from the House of Deputies, a legislative body composed of lay people and clergy. Debate was set for Thursday.
"We had pushed our own province as far as we thought we could do it," said Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island.
Some gay rights advocates still interpreted the recognition as an important, if small, victory. But bishops involved in approving the statement Wednesday said it is not an endorsement of same-sex unions.
"I'm sure some people will understand this to be an authorization. I don't believe that is what the intention of the resolution was," Bishop Mark Sisk of New York said. "It carefully steps back from saying we authorize. It says we recognize."
Wednesday's vote came even as conservatives continued to protest the confirmation of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson -- an act that gay advocates had hoped would build momentum toward approval for an official ceremony.
Instead, the bishops said, "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."
Sisk said Thursday that by acknowledging the different practices in different dioceses, the document intended to express the desire to keep the church together despite the divisions among Episcopalians about homosexuality. Bishops now decide whether to permit same-sex blessing ceremonies in their local parishes.
"The intent was a statement of solidarity. We are shoulder-to-shoulder," Sisk said.
Three bishops -- in Kansas, New Hampshire and Delaware -- currently 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 Rev. Kendall Harmon, a conservative who opposes same-sex blessings, said the document was "problematic" in its ambiguity, predicting some will consider it authorization to conduct the ceremonies. The language could be amended during debate in the House of Deputies.
The debate at this week's General Convention came after Robinson's election was ratified. The 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.
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.
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."
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 have reacted angrily 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.
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