On the last full day of their nine-day triennial gathering, members of the Episcopal Church decided to “exercise restraint” on the consecration of gay bishops, falling short of the outright moratorium on the consecration of gay bishops that the Anglican Communion, the worldwide organization of 38 church bodies to which the Episcopal Church belongs, had required of them.

They also voted not to “repent” for the elevation of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, bishop of New Hampshire, as their first openly gay bishop in 2003--another request of the Anglican Communion, which claims 77 million adherents. And a proposal to cease blessing same-sex unions--a third request of the Anglican Communion--was dropped entirely.

But these decisions came more by default than by design. Torn over the language of their response to the Anglican Communion–were they sincerely repentant? Or too haughty?--they first let die motions to declare a moratorium on gay bishops and a ban on same-sex unions. The final agreement came only after the church’s outgoing presiding bishop, the Rev. Frank Griswold, called on a joint session of the church’s two presiding houses on Wednesday morning to reach a compromise. The resulting policy is non-binding and leaves individual Episcopal dioceses to determine how far they want to include gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) persons in the life of the church.

No matter how they came about, the convention’s decisions–including Sunday’s historic election of the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, bishop of the diocese of Nevada, as the first woman to head the 2.3-million member church and the first female primate in the worldwide Anglican Communion–threaten to further widen the fissures in this already highly polarized denomination.

They also offer a glimpse into the future not only of the Episcopal Church, which, along with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted this week to leave gay ordination up to local church leaders, but into the country’s broader culture wars over homosexuality and same-sex unions.

“This [Episcopal conflict] is indicative of [America's] broader polarization,” said Ian Markham, dean of Hartford Seminary and a candidate for Episcopal holy orders, who estimates that church membership is 80 percent progressive and 20 percent conservative. “The Episcopal Church is predominantly blue state. So what this is indicative of is the growing polarization of America over this question. You have half the country impatient to move ahead, saying this is a justice issue and the world ought to acknowledge the rights of all individuals while the other half saying this is indicative of a country that is increasingly depraved. That is where the battle lines are.”

Some survey data bear Markham out. A 2005 Boston Globe poll found that about half of Americans don't want their states to recognize gay marriages and half do. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll in the same year found stronger opposition to gay marriage. 

A more recent poll suggests that public opinion on homosexuals is changing. According to a March 2006 Pew Forum poll, 51 percent of Americans oppose legalizing gay marriage, down from 63 percent in 2004. Those who favor same-sex marriage have increased from 29 percent in 2004 to 39 percent.

But if the Episcopalians remain as divided as the rest of the country over homosexuality, their debate has shown that the division between the two sides is not strictly a religious one. There are many committed Episcopalians who believe that GLBT persons are, in the words of Robinson, “children of God” and deserve to be recognized as full members of the church. That contrasts with the usual media portrayal of the debate in the broader culture, in which the loudest voices against homosexual rights routinely claim a religious foundation and those in favor seem to be more secular than religious.

“The national attention this debate has drawn is a true gift from God,” said Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, a group that fights for inclusion of GLBT persons in the church. “It is an opportunity for evangelization and an answer to the religious right, who have claimed they have the sole voice in Christian values.”

Most within the Episcopal Church believe that the denomination will eventually officially approve the ordination of gays and lesbians and the blessing of same-sex unions. They say that progressives, who are generally in favor of full inclusion, far outnumber the conservatives, who do not.

Markham says the conservatives make two points to defend their stance. First, that the Bible says that sex should be for procreation, so gay sex is thereby unnatural. Second, they refer to the “smattering” of verses explicitly banning homosexuality.

“But we have won the arguments,” Markham, a progressive Episcopalian, said. “We got over the first with contraception when we conceded that intimacy can be a legitimate expression of human sexuality. And we have won the biblical argument because the Bible is very pro-inclusion, and there are more texts that are pro-slavery than are anti-homosexual and all the churches have come to terms with the fact that biblical witness is not pro-slavery.”

Still, this week’s decisions do not end the debate. The compromise is being largely interpreted as a way to keep the channels of communication open between the Episcopal Church and the rest of the Anglican Communion, which does not recognize gay ordination.

“The deepest splits now are not between Catholics and Protestants, but within individual denominations,” said Jane Redmont, an assistant professor of religious studies at Guilford College and a candidate for Episcopal ordination. “This may be pushing us in to being very clear about where we stand on a variety of issues.”