MINNEAPOLIS – Episcopal Church (search) leaders gave final approval Thursday to a measure on blessing same-sex couples that its drafters said affirmed the ceremonies as "an acceptable practice in the church."'
Gays and their conservative opponents both called it a victory for homosexuals, even though it fails to create an official liturgy for the ceremonies — a policy change that bishops earlier rejected.
The Rev. Frank Wade (search), head of the liturgical committee that wrote the document, said he interpreted the measure to mean that dioceses conducting same-sex blessings "are operating within the parameters of the understanding of this church and its doctrine and discipline."
Wade's explanation marks a reversal from how several bishops viewed the document when they approved it Wednesday. Those bishops had described the statement as only an acknowledgment that same-sex unions are being blessed in local dioceses — not an endorsement.
Gay advocates and conservatives, however, agreed with Wade's interpretation. The Episcopal gay advocacy group Integrity said "we understand the language ... clearly to give national license" to the ceremonies.
The Rev. Kendall Harmon, a leading conservative who lobbied against the document, said what "seems like a compromise" actually isn't.
"Let's be honest. This is authorization," Harmon said. "It sanctions homosexual behavior."
The House of Bishops approved the measure first, on a voice vote Wednesday. They cut from the document a proposal on drafting standard language for the ceremonies for an official church prayer book.
Many said they wanted to water down the measure out of concern for church unity following Tuesday's contentious confirmation of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson (search), a gay cleric, as New Hampshire's bishop.
The House of Deputies, a legislative body comprised of clergy and lay people, approved the amended version of the document Thursday.
The deputies used a complex voting procedure that required clergy and lay people in diocesan delegations to cast separate ballots. The measure needed a majority of votes in each delegation to win. In the combined results, 120 delegations voted yes and 72 voted no. The votes of 24 delegations were not counted because their members were divided.
The document 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."
Bishop Mark Sisk of New York was among those who interpreted the document as simply an acknowledgment of the different approaches to same-sex blessings in each diocese.
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.
"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," Sisk said. "It carefully steps back from saying we authorize. It says we recognize."
But Wade said it affirms the blessings as "within the bounds" of church teaching and an "acceptable practice in the church."
It is unclear what impact — if any — the measure will have. Bishops now decide whether to permit same-sex blessing ceremonies in their local parishes and they retain what church leaders call that "local option."
That is a key provision for conservatives, who fear the church will create a mandatory same-sex blessing ceremony that would have forced them to offer the rite in their own parishes.
Bishop Robert Ilhoff of Maryland contended the statement would have little practical effect: "It continues the policy that is in effect in all our dioceses."
However, it could further alienate Episcopalians and Anglicans outraged by Robinson's confirmation. The 56-year-old divorced father of two has been living with his male partner for 13 years.
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 the gay bishop's election, with some threatening to cut ties with the American church. Some American conservatives have threatened to leave as well.
The Anglicans' spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (search), appealed for opponents not to act rashly.