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It was not a step many expected the Episcopal Church to take, and it was a big one. The church has voted to allow gay men and lesbians to become bishops. That issue split the church after it consecrated one openly gay bishop and saw its most conservative churches leave the denomination. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, it was those departures that opened the door for yesterday's vote.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Just a few weeks ago, even liberals were predicting that the Episcopal Church would back away from allowing openly gay men and lesbians to become bishops. Ever since 2003, when the church elevated Gene Robinson to be bishop of New Hampshire, it's taken incoming fire from conservative Anglicans around the world. So three years ago, leaders tried to tamp down the anger by promising a moratorium on consecrating gay bishops.

Reverend SUSAN RUSSELL (Episcopal Priest): And we did that for a time — for the last three years — and that time is over.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's Susan Russell, a priest in Pasadena and president of Integrity, a gay rights organization in the church. She was at the church's general convention in Anaheim, California, yesterday when it reversed course and voted overwhelmingly to allow any gay man or lesbian to become a priest or a bishop.

So what's changed in the past three years? Well, the conservative wing of the Episcopal Church has walked out and is creating its own rival church, leaving liberals in the vast majority. Russell likens the feeling to a Janis Joplin song.

POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: While Janis Joplin recorded "Me and Bobby McGee," the song was written by Kris Kristofferson.

Ms. RUSSELL: Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. And I think there's a tremendous sense of freedom and liberation in this church right now that the mission of this church no longer is going to be held hostage by those who were threatening to leave.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Russell acknowledges that this was a risky move, particularly because Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, warned the Americans not to endorse gay bishops or same-sex blessings lest the second-largest Christian church in the world be split in two. But Russell says the U.S. church is independent, and no foreign province can tell it what to do.

Ms. RUSSELL: There are those in the wider church who might prefer we'd never put tea in the Boston Harbor but that happened, too.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: But not everyone shares her defiant enthusiasm.

Bishop EDWARD LITTLE (Diocese of Northern Indiana): I'm deeply concerned and particularly for the international ramifications.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Ed Little, bishop of the diocese of Northern Indiana, is one of the few conservatives left. He says that officially endorsing homosexuality — when much of the Communion believes that homosexual practice is a biblical sin — is breaking faith with their fellow Anglicans. In fact, several African and Latin American provinces have severed ties with the U.S. church and, Little says, the Episcopal Church may find itself demoted.

Mr. LITTLE: There's certainly the possibility that that fracture will actually deepen. And it could be that in some way or other, we'll find ourselves in a secondary place in the Anglican Communion.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Internally, the American church is struggling. Its presiding bishop acknowledged this week that last year, the church lost 19,000 members. Little believes the vote on gay bishops won't help.

Mr. LITTLE: It will accelerate individual departures, it will accelerate the number of parishes that decide to leave, and it may perhaps push another diocese or two over the edge. So I think it's going to increase the fragmentation.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Not so, says Susan Russell.

Ms. RUSSELL: A church that is obsessed with fighting over whether or not gay or lesbian people can be bishops is just not real attractive. I mean, come watch us argue about gay people - is not a great marketing scheme. And I'm of the mind that the decisions we're making today are going to encourage church growth rather than decline.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: She's anticipating the next hot potato: Church leaders are expected to take up blessings for same-sex unions later today.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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