The bishops adopted 119 to 19, with four abstentions, a resolution passed overwhelmingly by the House of Deputies earlier in the week saying that the church will provide "prayerful support, encouragement and pastoral care" for people in faithful relationships.
In other action at the General Convention of the 2.5 million-member denomination, the House of Deputies voted Thursday to set a deadline of Sept. 1, 2002, for all dioceses to have a plan to allow the ministry of ordained women. Although the church has ordained women since the mid-1970s, the bishops of Fort Worth, Texas, and Quincy, Ill., still have not ordained women to the priesthood or authorized women priests to function in their dioceses.
The legislation, which creates a task force to help the dioceses comply with denominational law, now moves to the House of Bishops for action.
Arguing against formation of a task force, George Marshall, a lay delegate from Schenectady, N.Y., said, "Passing this resolution is setting a dangerous precedent. Today the issue is women's ordination. What will it be tomorrow? Will there be a regulatory committee on every issue?"
But the Rev. Katherine Lehman of Menlo Park, Calif., argued, "Our unity cannot be based upon tolerance of continued discrimination."
After the vote, delegations from Quincy and Fort Worth gathered in the back of the cavernous room to pray.
"It is a matter of conscience,'' said the Rev. Charles Hough III of Fort Worth. ''It is a matter of theology. You can't legislate faith, and we'll go to the wall on that."
Representatives of Fort Worth and Quincy argued that the issue is not their compliance with the Episcopal Church, but the American church's stance within historic Christian tradition and the larger Anglican communion.
"Even though we are in a minority in the Episcopal Church, we are in a majority in the Anglican Church worldwide," said the Rev. H.W. Herrmann of Quincy.
Earlier, the Episcopal bishops decided against developing ceremonial rites for nonmarried couples, an issue that has dominated the church's General Convention because it would include homosexuals.
The bishops voted against the plan Wednesday, as did clergy and lay delegates a day earlier.
``I think we're slowly and gradually moving toward'' blessing the unions, said Bishop Michael Creighton of the central Pennsylvania diocese. ``But we're not there yet.''
With many members absent, the House of Bishops, which along with the House of Deputies makes up the church's governing body, voted 85-63 against developing rites for unmarried couples.
In the House of Deputies vote Tuesday, the 832 clergy and lay delegates were almost evenly split. The proposal barely passed among clergy members (after first being reported as having lost), but failed by four votes among lay members.
The deputies overwhelmingly passed the rest of the resolution, which calls on the church to support and minister to unmarried couples in committed, monogamous relationships--the same stand the bishops took Thursday.
Delegates say the proposal is aimed at people for whom marriage is impossible or difficult, such as elderly couples who will lose retirement benefits if they marry. But it is widely seen as a response to the push among Episcopalians to bless unions of gay and lesbian couples.
Some dioceses ordain gay and lesbian priests and bless same-sex unions. The resolution before the bishops concedes that dioceses will continue to perform same-sex ceremonies without churchwide sanction.
Some bishops stressed the resolution is the church's first public acknowledgment of same-sex couples. Others said it doesn't go far enough.
``I can't imagine how much pain it would cause me if I could not acknowledge in the community that is the most important part of my life, the partnership that is the most important in my life,'' said Bishop Chester Talton of Los Angeles.
The issue is just as devastating for people who believe homosexuality violates biblical and church teachings, bishops said.
``You've heard of the pain of gays and lesbians, let me tell you about the pain of the traditionalists who feel the church has betrayed them,'' said Bishop Bertram Herlong of Tennessee. ``For them, it's not an issue of justice, it's an issue of morality. It's not about the blessing of unions, it's about blessing sex outside of marriage.''
Opponents also argued the proposal would alienate the Anglican Church. The Episcopal Church, with 2.4 million members, is the U.S. branch of the 70 million-member Anglican Church, which supports traditional teachings on marriage and sexuality.
Other denominations, including the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), have recently voted against blessing same-sex unions and ordaining homosexuals. The 1.4 million-member United Church of Christ sanctions same-sex unions.