The US Episcopal Church gave its clergy the go-ahead on yesterday to bless some same-sex unions, such as civil partnerships in states that legally recognise them, setting the stage for further conflict with the wider Anglican world.
The resolution, passed on the final day of the church's triennial national convention, also directs church leaders to develop official rites, or liturgies, for the blessing of same-sex unions - a move that could see the church eventually change its definition of marriage.
For now, the church's official definition of marriage is a union between a man and a woman. The same-sex rites called for yesterday will be discussed and voted on at the next general church conference in three years.
The 2 million-member Episcopal Church earlier this week approved a resolution opening the doors to ordain gay men and women as clergy.
Both resolutions are sure to further strain US Episcopal Church relations with its conservative parishes and the global Anglican Communion, whose 80 million members belong to congregations that are offshoots of the Church of England.
Church unity has been strained since 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first bishop in Anglican history known to be in an openly gay relationship.
The ordaining of gay clergy and related issues have already prompted some congregations to leave the Episcopal fold and form a rival North American church that claims 100,000 believers. Anglican churches in regions like Africa have broken ties with their more liberal US brethren.
"We're doing our best to make room for everybody. We have gay and lesbian members, and gay and lesbian clergy, and we are trying to honor the diversity of belief and theology in the church," Stephen Lane, the bishop of Maine, told Reuters before the resolution's final passage.
The drama is unfolding against the backdrop of America's wider debate over sexual orientation issues, such as gay marriage, child adoption by same-sex parents and the status of homosexuals in the military.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the United Church of Christ is alone among major US Christian denominations in officially recognizing gay marriage. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America may decide in August to sanction same-sex marriage as well.
Polls consistently show gays and lesbians enjoying growing acceptance in American society. But fast-growing faiths in the United States such as many evangelical Protestant churches and the Mormon church regard homosexual relations as sinful and proscribed by scripture.
The resolution was couched in cautious language.
It called for for "an open procession for the consideration of theological resources and liturgies for the blessing of same gender relationships." That job is assigned to various church bodies that will report to the next convention in 2012.
In the meantime, the resolution directs "that bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church."
That is not an official sanction of gay marriage, but gives bishops the discretion to permit their clergy to bless same-sex civil unions, for example, where they are legal. Gay marriage is now legal in six US states.
"The church has not changed its definition of marriage. It's still male and female. But in six states, the state has changed its definition," Lane said.
Some commentators believe the Episcopal Church may eventually leave the Anglican Communion, which, like more conservative denominations in the United States, is enjoying its greatest growth in countries where same-sex relations are frowned upon.