LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A global schism in the worldwide Anglican Communion looked set to widen on Tuesday after its U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church, approved a resolution to ordain gay and lesbian clergy.
The ordaining of gay clergy and related issues have already prompted some conservative congregations to leave the Episcopal fold, while a few traditional Anglican churches in regions like Africa have broken ties with their more liberal U.S. brethren.
The resolution was passed by wide margins by both of the church's main decision-making bodies, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, at its General Convention in Anaheim, California, south of Los Angeles.
The resolution affirmed that "God has called and may call such individuals (gay or lesbians), to any ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church."
It also recognized that "the baptized membership of The Episcopal Church includes same-sex couples living in lifelong committed relationships characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God."
Nancy Davidge, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church, said the resolution did not address the issue of same-sex marriage at all and its wording should not be interpreted as such.
Adoption of the measure marked the latest chapter in a long-running saga that has threatened splits in the Anglican Communion, whose roughly 80 million members belong to congregations that are offshoots of the Church of England.
Divisions between liberals and conservatives already had undermined Episcopal Church unity by 2003, when it consecrated Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first bishop in Anglican history known to be in an openly gay relationship.
Tuesday's resolution appears to have ended an effective three-year moratorium on the election of gay bishops that had been agreed to cool tensions. No openly gay or lesbian bishop has been elected since Robinson's consecration.
Last month, conservatives who left the U.S. Episcopal Church over issues like gay clergy finalized the formation of a rival denomination, the new Anglican Church in North America, claiming a membership of 100,000 followers.
All of this 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.
Conservative Christians regard same-sex relations as sinful and proscribed by scripture.
Commentators have speculated that the Episcopalians may eventually leave the Anglican Communion and could still lose some conservative congregations.
"There is no desire from within the Episcopal Church to leave the Anglican fold," Ian Douglas, a member of the House of Deputies, told Reuters by telephone.
He said the resolution confirmed the church's "commitment to nondiscrimination" and "states what is on the books."
The U.S. Episcopal branch has about 2 million worshipers and faces many of the problems that other mainline Protestant churches in America confront -- declining membership, some of whom have left for fast-growing evangelical churches, and aging congregations.
Writing and reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Steve Gorman and John O'Callaghan