The church's House of Deputies, composed of 832 clergy and lay delegates, passed a sweeping resolution Tuesday affirming relationships "characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication and holy love" between two people, whether gay or straight.
While not explicitly naming same-sex couples, the resolution was a compromise to grant recognition of same-sex relationships while not 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 said no by a razor-thin margin. The measure could not garner a majority of votes from either lay or clergy delegates.
The measure, minus the request for rites, now heads on Wednesday to the 200-member House of Bishops for an up or down vote. The resolution does not hold the weight of church law and needs approval from both houses to become official.
The action by the 2.5 million-member church, which is meeting through Friday for its triennial General Convention, represents one of the strongest statements made by a major Protestant church in support of gay and lesbian rights, and indeed the strongest statement made yet by Episcopalians.
Tuesday's vote marked the only major gay rights victory in any Christian church to emerge from a string of summer conventions. Earlier this summer, both the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) upheld their positions against same-sex unions and gay ordination. In March, the nation's Reform rabbis voted to allow the blessing of same-sex unions.
Gay rights supporters in the church heralded the vote as a major first step toward official church blessing of gay marriages, even though the church declined to create specific ceremonies.
"This process is still a step forward," said Scott Larsen, a spokesman for Integrity, a gay and lesbian Episcopalian group. "It's a smaller step than we had hoped for, but a step forward is [still] positive."
The measure also has sweeping implications for the church's stamp of approval on heterosexual unmarried couples living together in "life-long committed relationships." While it was clearly not the resolution's intention to support out-of-wedlock couples, several church leaders agreed 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 Charles Duvall of Pensacola, Fla. "I think it complicates things. I don't believe it's a good thing for unmarried people to live together. That's what marriage is for."
Surprisingly, most delegates were generally supportive of the measure and strongly disagreed only over the request to create special services.
"It seems odd to me that we would prepare rites where we haven't even decided that this is the policy of our church," said the Rev. Mark Seitz, a pastor from West Virginia. "It is, in my mind, like buying a house before you need one or decide to live in it."
In a separate but related move, the church last week rejected a resolution that said "the blessing of committed, monogamous relationships, including same-gender relationships, promotes effective prevention of HIV/AIDS." Critics said the provision politicized the church's attempts to fight the AIDS crisis.
Episcopalians have struggled with the gay question for close to 30 years, but the church is often hesitant to take dramatic action whenever the choice to bless same-sex unions is placed before it.
When the church last met in 1997, in Philadelphia, a proposal to create same-sex ceremonies failed by just one vote. The church instead directed the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to further study the issue, but that report was largely rejected at the Denver meeting.
While the church is still moving forward on the gay issue, some said the closeness of the vote--and the depth of the disagreement--shows that the church should move cautiously through this theological mine field.
"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. To act apart from the Spirit only brings judgment, not justice."