MINNEAPOLIS - Concerned about raw emotions and wary of pushing their church to the breaking point, Episcopal bishops turned back a drive yesterday to develop a nationwide ceremony for blessing same-sex unions.
A day after making history by confirming the first openly gay elected bishop in America, the institution's House of Bishops rejected the call for a new liturgy for same-sex couples, saying the church needed an open, national conversation on the issue before moving forward.
"I'm mindful that ... our actions do have an impact around the world," said Bishop Mark S. Sisk of the Diocese of New York. "We are growing in a direction that will in the future authorize such unions. Growth that is too fast leads to weakness."
The bishops halted the push for liturgical change as conservatives warned of a split in the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch.
Many traditionalists were infuriated Tuesday when the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson - an openly gay man - was confirmed as bishop of New Hampshire. Conservatives in America and other parts of the 75- million-member Anglican Communion have threatened to break with the Episcopal Church over the issue. Yesterday's session of the church's tri-annual convention was marked by small acts of protest.
By rejecting the development of a liturgy for now, the bishops avoided antagonizing traditionalists further. But in calling for more dialogue, the bishops also approved a carefully worded statement recognizing that priests in some dioceses are quietly performing same-sex blessings: "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 approval of that statement in a broader resolution - that recommits the church to ministering to homosexuals - left gay-rights advocates declaring a partial victory and some conservatives disappointed and confused.
The Rev. Michael Hopkins, president of Integrity, a grass-roots Episcopal gay-rights group, said that by recognizing the practice, the church was finally being honest with its parishioners and the world.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is a major step forward," said Hopkins, rector of St. George's Episcopal Church in Glendale, Prince George's County. "There has never been an explicit statement that bishops can do this.
"Anytime the church can be honest about its life, it is an important thing," he said.
Some conservatives complained that the statement was ambiguous and could lead to further fragmentation of the church. "What it means is people who are doing this are going to keep doing it - they are just going to do it more explicitly. The church will become more and more disunited," said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina.
The Rev. Canon David C. Anderson, president of the conservative American Anglican Council, was pleased by the rejection of same-sex liturgy but unhappy over the ambiguity of the statement: "Ambiguity sometimes keeps us together, but it sometimes comes back to bite us."
The practice of blessing gay and lesbian unions varies widely across the church. It is explicitly permitted in three liberal dioceses, including Delaware, and forbidden in conservative areas such as Fort Worth, Texas.
In Maryland, Bishop Robert W. Ihloff has left it up to the discretion of parish priests, a practice he says is common. Yesterday, Ihloff spoke against the development of a same-sex liturgy now but in favor of the overall resolution - which goes to the church's House of Deputies today for final approval. "Living for eight years in relationship to you [the bishops] has deepened my sensitivities to the way in which Maryland does not necessarily represent the rest of the world," he told his colleagues.
Hopkins, who is openly gay, says he has performed about 10 same-sex blessings over the past nine years. He said he blesses only the unions of people from his suburban parish or those from other parishes where priests won't perform blessings.
The debate this week is part of a larger, national conversation over the nature of marriage and its intersection with spiritual, legal and public life.
Last month, President Bush decried gay marriages and ordered government lawyers to look into ways to bar them. Pope John Paul II recently exhorted Roman Catholic lawmakers and other faithful to fight legalization of gay marriage and adoption of children by gay and lesbian couples.
In the Episcopal Church, proponents of blessing same-sex unions say the issue is about equal rights for homosexuals and full access to God.
They complain that heterosexual unions can enjoy the church's blessing but that homosexuals in long-term, committed relationships can't.
"This is about people who want to commit their lives to each other and to Christ and want a community to support them in that journey," said the Rev. Susan Russell, executive director of Claiming the Blessing, a group pushing for full church recognition of same-sex unions.
Opponents say the debate is about sin, faith and defiance of God's word. They point directly to Scripture.
In the Old Testament, the book of Leviticus refers to homosexual activity as an "abomination." In the New Testament book of Romans, the Apostle Paul says homosexual acts are "against nature." The passage reads: "Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death."
Harmon said it's clear homosexuality is a violation of God's purpose, and the only proper context for sex is between married men and women: "God did not offer up Jesus Christ for the purpose of rubber stamping and affirming all human desires."