Episcopal Church officials voted Friday to allow bishops the latitude to bless same-sex unions, the second vote this week in favor of gay rights and one that may further divide the worldwide Anglican community.
On the last day of the church's triennial national convention in Anaheim, Calif., officials stopped short of creating liturgical rites to bless same-sex unions, but approved a compromise measure that allows bishops to bless the relationships. The key portion of the legislation says bishops "may provide generous pastoral response" for such unions.
The vote came three days after the church passed a resolution allowing for the ordination of gay bishops. Both moves have prompted strong reactions among the larger worldwide Anglican Church, of which the Episcopal Church is a part.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the pre-eminent Anglican clergyman, had asked the Episcopalians before the convention not to take up issues that would further divide the church. This week, the influential bishop of Durham, England, wrote an essay describing the most recent actions of the Episcopal Church as marking "a clear break with the rest of the Anglican Communion."
Meanwhile, gay rights advocates said this week's victories lay the groundwork for future moves. The resolution included a call for bishops to "collect and develop theological and liturgical resources" on same-sex unions to report to the next convention. Three years from now, they may consider creating a standard liturgy for same-sex unions with the eventual goal of including a rite for gay marriage in the church's prayer book.
Some believe the recent moves have come at a cost. A number of parishes and dioceses have left the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church and affiliated with overseas branches of the Anglican Communion.