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

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

Homosexuality, with its emotional implications for identity, theology, and community, has repeatedly pushed the church to the brink of schism. Only the unity of Anglican tradition and liturgy has kept the church together while the gay 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 Denver meeting, 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 that perhaps the via media has been found that will guide the church through the thorny 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 supporting relationships "outside of marriage" that are either gay or straight. While the carefully worded compromise did not mention same-sex unions directly, it was the church's first major statement in support of relationships other than marriage.

Perhaps most important, it was the first time the church officially recognized that both liberals and conservatives have a place in the debate. The resolution recognized there are "some, who disagree with the traditional teaching of the church on human sexuality, [who] will act in contradiction to that 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, a group of gay and lesbian Episcopalians. "The question is how they should be celebrated."

The original proposal called for the development of special rites to "support" such relationships, but sensing that such a move could actually split 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 will be 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 partial endorsement.

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 made real progress," said Bishop Claude Payne of Texas.

Many give credit to Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, who urged delegates to use 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 work done behind the scenes and without much notice.

A landmark ecumenical agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also shaped the tone of the debate. The church overwhelmingly approved the "Called to Common Mission" agreement that, despite critics in both churches, will allow the exchange of clergy and sharing in common mission projects.

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

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

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

"Our call is not to come to agreement on every troubling matter," said Bishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis. "Our call is to come to agreement despite our differences."

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