Episcopal priests would be allowed to conduct services blessing same-sex relationships under a policy up for final approval Tuesday at the church's national convention in Indianapolis.
The convention's House of Bishops approved the provisional policy 111-41 with three abstentions Monday, clearing it for consideration by the House of Deputies, church spokeswoman Neva Rae Fox said Tuesday.
If the proposal is approved, the Episcopal Church would become the largest U.S. denomination to approve a ceremony blessing same-sex unions.
The United Church of Christ endorsed same-sex marriage in 2005. The Presbyterian and Methodist churches rejected similar measures at their conferences this summer.
The Episcopal policy calls for a three-year trial run of the blessing service, which is called "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant." It would be accompanied by a review process leading up to the church's next annual convention in Salt Lake City. It's then that church leaders would decide whether to make the policy permanent, Fox said.
The policy includes a provision stating that clergy members who object to the policy cannot be coerced to perform it, or disciplined for refusing.
During Monday's debate, Bishop Nathan Baxter of Central Pennsylvania said the policy would allow the church to focus on inclusion while respecting theological differences within the church, according to the Episcopal News Service.
But others said the policy was a bad idea, the news service reported.
"The Christian world is going to understand us as having changed the nature of the sacrament of holy matrimony," the news service quoted Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana as saying. "The Christian world will look at that liturgy world and see vows, and exchange of rings, a pronouncement and a blessing and they will understand that to mean the Episcopal Church has endorsed same-sex marriage and changed a basic Christian doctrine. I do not believe that we are free to do that."
The Episcopal Church has about 2 million members in the United States.