DENVER, July 14 (RNS)--In the 1850s, it was slavery. In the 1970s, it was women'sordination. And since the 1990s, the Episcopal Church has wrestled withhomosexuality.

Almost more than any other issue, homosexuality has tested Episcopalians'ability to find the cherished "via media"--the middle way that has definedAnglican identity since its inception.

Homosexuality, with its emotional implications for identity, theology, andcommunity, has repeatedly pushed the church to the brink of schism. Only theunity of Anglican tradition and liturgy has kept the church together while thegay issue looms like the proverbial elephant in the church's living room.

At the church's 73rd General Convention meeting, which ended Friday after nine days in Denver,Episcopalians again wrestled with the role of gays and lesbians in church life,with the issue polarizing delegates and bishops. Emerging from the Denvermeeting, however, is a church that seems to be stronger for its struggles.

Delegates and bishops agree this year's meeting seemed somehow different.Civility radiated from the Colorado Convention Center, and it appeared thatperhaps the via media has been found that will guide the church through thethorny thicket of homosexuality.

Both the 832-member House of Deputies--comppsed of lay and clergy members--and the 204-member House of Bishops passed a sweeping statement supportingrelationships "outside of marriage" that are either gay or straight. While thecarefully worded compromise did not mention same-sex unions directly, it was thechurch's first major statement in support of relationships other than marriage.

Perhaps most important, it was the first time the church officiallyrecognized that both liberals and conservatives have a place in the debate. Theresolution recognized there are "some, who disagree with the traditionalteaching of the church on human sexuality, [who] will act in contradiction tothat position."

"The question is no longer whether our relationships exist or are of God,"said the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins, a gay priest and president of Integrity, agroup of gay and lesbian Episcopalians. "The question is how they should becelebrated."

The original proposal called for the development of special rites to"support" such relationships, but sensing that such a move could actuallysplit the church, both houses defeated it.

Still, it appears the church is gradually--some might say grudgingly--moving in support of the blessing of same-sex unions.

"There isn't a bishop in this house who doesn't know where this issue willbe 10 years from now," said Bishop William Swing of San Francisco.

Both conservatives and liberals heralded the document as a major victory.Conservatives said they had stemmed the tide moving toward a same-sex blessing.Liberals said gays and lesbians had finally been given at least a partialendorsement.

But even more, both sides said the debate had become more conversational,more civilized, less dysfunctional. "We're not out of it yet, but we've madereal progress," said Bishop Claude Payne of Texas.

Many give credit to Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, who urged delegates touse the 2000 meeting as a time of Jubilee to lay fallow and not rock the boat.Griswold emerged as a respected shepherd of the flock, with most of his workdone behind the scenes and without much notice.

A landmark ecumenical agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church inAmerica also shaped the tone of the debate. The church overwhelmingly approvedthe "Called to Common Mission" agreement that, despite critics in bothchurches, will allow the exchange of clergy and sharing in common missionprojects.

As the first "full communion" agreement signed by Episcopalians withanother Christian denomination, the agreement showed that the church's mostpressing needs are external challenges and not internal squabbles, many in thechurch said.

"The mission of the church is really our most critical job," said BishopStephen Jecko of Florida, a leader of the conservative wing. "Unfortunately, alot of these resolutions take away from the main mission of the church, which isoutreach."

Episcopalians will continue aiming for the center for the next three years,until the next General Convention meeting. Some dioceses will continue to ordaingays and lesbians and bless their relationships, and others will not. Some willordain women, some will not. Most, if not all, will simply try to agree todisagree.

"Our call is not to come to agreement on every troubling matter," saidBishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis

. "Our call is to come to agreementdespite our differences."