DENVER, July 11 (RNS)--The Episcopal Church Tuesday took a first major step toward the "support" of same-sex relationships, even as it narrowly defeated a call to create special ceremonies to recognize gay unions.

The church's House of Deputies, composed of 832 clergy and laydelegates, passed a sweeping resolution Tuesday affirming relationships "characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection andrespect, careful, honest communication and holy love" between twopeople, whether gay or straight.

While not explicitly naming same-sex couples, the resolution was acompromise to grant recognition of same-sex relationships whilenot going so far as to officially bless or sanction them.

But in a separate vote on whether to request specific rites to"support"--not bless--such lifelong relationships, the church saidno by a razor-thin margin. The measure could not garner a majority ofvotes from either lay or clergy delegates.

The measure, minus the request for rites, now heads on Wednesday tothe 200-member House of Bishops for an up or down vote. The resolutiondoes not hold the weight of church law and needs approval from bothhouses to become official.

The action by the 2.5 million-member church, which is meetingthrough Friday for its triennial General Convention, represents one ofthe strongest statements made by a major Protestant church in support ofgay and lesbian rights, and indeed the strongest statement made yet byEpiscopalians.

Tuesday's vote marked the only major gay rights victory in anyChristian church to emerge from a string of summer conventions. Earlierthis summer, both the United Methodist Church and the PresbyterianChurch (USA) upheld their positions against same-sex unions and gayordination. In March, the nation's Reform rabbis voted to allow theblessing of same-sex unions.

Gay rights supporters in the church heralded the vote as a majorfirst step toward official church blessing of gay marriages, eventhough the church declined to create specific ceremonies.

"This process is still a step forward," said Scott Larsen, aspokesman for Integrity, a gay and lesbian Episcopalian group. "It's asmaller step than we had hoped for, but a step forward is [still]positive."

The measure also has sweeping implications for the church's stamp ofapproval on heterosexual unmarried couples living together in "life-longcommitted relationships." While it was clearly not the resolution'sintention to support out-of-wedlock couples, several church leadersagreed that could be read into the document.

That issue may come up in Wednesday's vote in the House of Bishops.

"It's an interpretation I'm personally against," said Bishop CharlesDuvall of Pensacola, Fla. "I think it complicates things. I don'tbelieve it's a good thing for unmarried people to live together. That'swhat marriage is for."

Surprisingly, most delegates were generally supportive of themeasure and strongly disagreed only over the request to create specialservices.

"It seems odd to me that we would prepare rites where we haven'teven decided that this is the policy of our church," said the Rev. MarkSeitz, a pastor from West Virginia. "It is, in my mind, like buying ahouse before you need one or decide to live in it."

Because the church is so split on the issue, a special 12-membercommittee of lay, clergy, and bishops rejected all other same-sexproposals and crafted the compromise measure in their place. While thebulk of the resolution received unanimous support from the committee,the six bishops were evenly split on the request for rites for same-sexunion ceremonies.

In a separate but related move, the church last week rejected aresolution that said "the blessing of committed, monogamousrelationships, including same-gender relationships, promotes effectiveprevention of HIV/AIDS." Critics said the provision politicized thechurch's attempts to fight the AIDS crisis.

Episcopalians have struggled with the gay question for close to 30years, but the church is often hesitant to take dramatic action wheneverthe choice to bless same-sex unions is placed before it.

When the church last met in 1997, in Philadelphia, a proposal tocreate same-sex ceremonies failed by just one vote. The church insteaddirected the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to further studythe issue, but that report was largely rejected at the Denver meeting.

While the church is still moving forward on the gay issue, some saidthe closeness of the vote--and the depth of the disagreement--showsthat the church should move cautiously through this theological minefield.

"That division should tell us that this is not of the Holy Spirit,"said the Rev. David Ottsen, a pastor from the Northern Indiana diocese."The Spirit brings unity, a common vision, a common mind of Christ. Toact apart from the Spirit only brings judgment, not justice."