SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Episcopal Church has completed its embrace of gay rights, changing church law to allow same-sex religious marriages throughout the denomination, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.
The new policy won overwhelming approval from the top Episcopal legislative body Wednesday, following decades of debate and conflict. It came 12 years after the denomination blazed a trail by electing the first openly gay bishop.
"To finally get to this day is an incredible moment," said the Rev. Cynthia Black, of Morristown, New Jersey, a lesbian who has been campaigning for gay acceptance for years. "It is the beginning. It is not the end. There will still be people excluded, but at least we've gotten to this point."
The vote came in Salt Lake City at the Episcopal General Convention. Many dioceses in the New York-based church of nearly 1.9 million members already had been allowing their priests to perform civil same-sex weddings, using a trial prayer service to bless the couple. Still, the church hadn't changed its own laws on marriage until Wednesday.
The new law eliminates gender-specific language on marriage so same-sex couples could have religious weddings. Instead of "husband" and "wife," for example, the new church law will refer to "the couple." Clergy can decline to perform the ceremonies.
The changes were approved 173-27 by the House of Deputies, a voting body of clergy and lay people. The deputies also approved a gender-neutral prayer service for marriage on a 184-23 vote. The House of Bishops had given authorization for both measures a day earlier.
The measures take effect the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 29.
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. wing of the Anglican Communion, an 80 million-member global fellowship of churches. Ties among Anglicans have been strained since Episcopalians in 2003 elected Bishop Gene Robinson, who lived openly with his male partner, to lead the Diocese of New Hampshire. Many more conservative Episcopalians either split off or distanced themselves from the national U.S. church after Robinson's election.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans, earlier this week expressed deep concern about the move to change the definition of marriage.
During debate Wednesday, the Rev. Jose Luis Mendoza-Barahona of Honduras said the new church law goes against the Bible and would create a chasm in the church.
"The fight has not ended, it's starting," he said during debate at the convention. "Those of us in the church who are loyal followers of Christ are going to remain firm in not recognizing what happened today."
But in an interview after the vote, Robinson said he was "delighted" and "proud" of the church.
"It's a day I wasn't sure I would live to see," said Robinson, who is now retired. "What we're seeing I think in the Episcopal Church, and last week with the Supreme Court decision, is an entire culture evolving into understanding that gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people contribute just as much as anyone else to this society and deserve all the same rights."
The Episcopal Church joins two other mainline Protestant groups that allow gay marriage in all their congregations: the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The 3.8-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America lets its congregations decide for themselves, and many of them host gay weddings.
The United Methodist Church, by far the largest mainline Protestant church with 12.8 million members, bars gay marriage, although many of its clergy have been officiating at same-sex weddings recently in protest.
Black and her wife Becky Walker, who had a commitment ceremony in their home in 1988 and formally married four years ago in Massachusetts, said they hoped the changes would help reverse dwindling church membership, drawing young people looking for a welcoming religion. Faith groups across the spectrum of belief, from the Episcopal Church to the Southern Baptists, have been losing members as more Americans say they identify with no particular religion. The Episcopal Church has shrunk 18 percent over the last decade, after more than a generation of steady decline.
"People under the age of 30 don't understand what the fuss is about. They've grown up having LGBT folks as their friends and part of their life," Black said. "They don't understand why the church would ever exclude them."