updated 7/14/2009 10:20:36 PM ET 2009-07-15T02:20:36

Episcopalians say gays and lesbians are eligible for any ordained ministry in their church even though the policy is likely to anger their fellow Anglicans.

The church gave final approval to the declaration Tuesday at the Episcopal General Convention in Anaheim.

Episcopalians caused an uproar in 2003 by consecrating the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Three years later, the church urged restraint in approving another gay bishop to calm the tensions. Gay advocates view Tuesday's statement as reversing that moratorium.

The church is the U.S. branch of the world Anglican Communion. The global fellowship is on the brink of splitting apart over ordaining gays and other issues.

Bishops at the Episcopal General Convention in Anaheim, Calif., Monday, voted 99-45 with two abstentions for a statement declaring "God has called and may call" to ministry gays in committed lifelong relationships.

Lay and priest delegates to the meeting had comfortably approved a nearly identical statement, and were expected to adopt the latest version before the meeting ends Friday.

Leaders of the Anglican Communion have been pushing Episcopalians to roll back their support for gays and lesbians since 2003, when the U.S. denomination consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. Anglican body.

Robinson's election brought the 77 million-member Anglican fellowship to the brink of schism. Last month, breakaway Episcopal conservatives and other like-minded traditionalists formed a rival national province called the Anglican Church in North America.

To calm tensions, the Episcopal General Convention three years ago passed a resolution that urged restraint by dioceses considering gay candidates for bishop. No other Episcopal bishops living openly with same-sex partners have been consecrated since then.

Drafters of the latest statement insisted that the resolution only acknowledges that the Episcopal Church ordains partnered gays and lesbians and is not a repeal of what was widely considered a moratorium on consecrating gay bishops.

"The constitution and canons of our church as currently written do not preclude gay and lesbian persons from participating," in any part of the church, said the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, on the committee that drafted the statement. "These people have responded to God's call."

However, the Episcopal gay advocacy group Integrity, said in a statement Monday night that the declaration "effectively ends" the temporary prohibition on gays in ministry. Integrity called the vote "another step in the Episcopal Church's 'coming out' process."

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who leads the Episcopal Church, was among the bishops who voted to approve the declaration. The statement also affirms the Episcopal Church's commitment to participate in and help fund the Anglican Communion, the third-largest grouping of churches worldwide, behind the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Christian churches.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, had attended the Episcopal national meeting in Anaheim in its opening days last week. He said, "I hope and pray that there won't be decisions in the coming days that could push us further apart."

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