By RACHEL ZOLL
AP Religion Writer
Episcopalians approved a churchwide ceremony Tuesday to bless same-sex couples, the latest decisive step toward accepting homosexuality by a denomination that nine years ago elected the first openly gay bishop.
At the Episcopal General Convention, which is divided into two voting bodies, about 80 percent of the House of Deputies voted to authorize a provisional rite for same-sex unions for the next three years. A day earlier, the House of Bishops approved the rites 111-41 with three abstentions during the church meeting in Indianapolis.
Other mainline Protestant churches have struck down barriers to gay ordination in recent years or allowed individual congregations to celebrate same-sex unions. However, only one major U.S. Protestant group, the United Church of Christ, has endorsed same-sex marriage outright.
Under the new Episcopal measure, each bishop will decide whether to allow the ceremonies in his or her local diocese. The new policy bars any penalty for Episcopalians who oppose its use.
Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage and three more states could do so this year, while 30 states have passed constitutional amendments limiting marriage to unions between a man and a woman.
In a separate vote Monday, the full Episcopal convention approved new anti-discrimination language for transgendered people that cleared the way for transgendered clergy.
Episcopalians blazed a trail -- and caused an uproar -- in 2003 by consecrating New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican world. While Robinson went on to become a powerful symbol for gay rights, the Anglican Communion began splintering, and has continued to do so ever since.
The New York-based Episcopal Church is the U.S. body of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion. Episcopal conservatives have created a rival denomination, the Anglican Church in North America, under the guidance of like-minded Anglican leaders overseas. Anglican leaders had asked Episcopalians for a moratorium on electing another gay or lesbian bishop as the communion struggled to stay together. Episcopalians agreed, but three years ago voted to lift the temporary ban.
The Anglican spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, has been trying for years to broker a compromise that could maintain unity. He will retire at the end of the year.
During a brief debate at the convention Tuesday, opponents argued that adopting an official liturgy amounted to an endorsement of same-sex marriage with no theological justification for doing so. Episcopal church law and Book of Common Prayer still define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
"It is being seen as a marriage rite even though I was told that is not intended," said the Rev. Sharon Lewis, from the Diocese of Southwest Florida delegation.
The Rev. David Thurlow of the Diocese of South Carolina told the convention that they were "marching off not only completely out of step with, but completely out of line with, the faith once delivered to the saints."
Yet, with the departure of many Episcopal conservatives from the denomination, even critics of the resolution acknowledged that they were unlikely to stop the measure.
In one of several emotional appeals for passage, Pete Ross, a lay delegate from the Diocese of Michigan, described a hearing on same-sex rite blessings in the convention when a man spoke about his lifelong male partner, who had recently died.
"He told us the anniversary they celebrated in their relationship was when they signed their mortgage," Ross said, choking back tears. "It's time for our church to honor these lifelong commitments."
The official liturgy for same-sex blessings has been in development since 2009, when it was authorized by the last General Convention. Some bishops had already created rites for the ceremonies for use in their own dioceses. But the prayers approved Tuesday are the first such official prayers for use by the entire church, which claims just under 2 million members.
The Episcopal rite is called "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant." Like the traditional Episcopal wedding, the ceremony includes prayers and an exchange of vows and rings. Same-sex couples must complete pre-marital counseling before being married or blessed by the church. The liturgy can be used starting December 2, the first Sunday in Advent.