US Episcopalians Move Forward on Gay Bishop

By Sarah Tippit and Todd Melby

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - U.S. Episcopalian leaders moved closer on Friday to approving the church's first openly gay bishop, a step that church conservatives warned could shatter unity among the world's 77 million Anglicans.

After a fierce public debate, Episcopal leaders attending the church's triennial convention voted behind closed doors to recommend ratification of New Hampshire bishop-elect Eugene Robinson, a divorced father of two. The vote count was not made public, and the debate participants were urged not to cheer after the terse announcement was made.

Robinson's expected elevation to his post by the full convention on Sunday will be followed by another vote on the controversial issue about whether to approve liturgy allowing American clergy to bless same-sex unions.

Robinson attended the debate with his longtime partner, Mark Andrew.

Figuring in the debate was the Roman Catholic Church's strong denunciation of gay marriage on Thursday, in which the Vatican called homosexual sex "deviant behavior" and urged authorities not to put same-sex unions on the same legal footing as marriages between a man and a woman.

President Bush also weighed in this week on the side of conservatives, and spokesman Scott McClellan said a proposed Constitutional amendment that would sanction only heterosexual marriages would be looked at by administration lawyers.

Robinson's elevation and the proposed liturgy governing homosexual unions have each prompted threats of a schism in the Anglican Communion that unites the world's 77 million congregants. The conservatives are led by bishops representing 20 million African and Asian members, many recent converts.

In Britain, a similar controversy triggered a decision by gay bishop-elect Canon Jeffrey John to withdraw his name.

Priests, bishops and churchgoers both for and against Robinson's ordination spoke passionately during the debate, with liberals who dominate the 2.3-million-member U.S. church arguing that Christianity be viewed as a fluid, evolving religion that seeks to be inclusive.

"If you only followed>