Leaders of the Episcopal Church voted overwhelmingly July 9 to approve blessings of same-sex weddings and the church's general convention in Indianapolis, according to the Episcopal News Service.
Although such a blessing is not considered an official marriage ceremony by the church, it still makes the Episcopal Church, with nearly 2 million members in the United States, the largest denomination to officially endorse same-sex relationships.
Seventy-six percent of clergy and 78 percent of voting lay members in the House of Bishops voted in favor of the measure, CNN reports, which will need to be reapproved in three years.
This isn't the first time the Episcopal Church has made strides toward embracing gay members. In 2003 the church elected Gene Robinson as the first out gay bishop in any major Christian denomination. Six years later, in 2009, the church approved the ordination of gay priests.
Those decisions have not come without a price. Divisions among conservatives and liberals within the church have increased substantially. Much like denominations worldwide, church membership has decreased about 16 percent in the past decade, according to CNN.
It remains to be seen what, if any, effect the church's July 9 vote will have on other Christian denominations or the four November state ballot measures concerning marriage equality. But for gay Episcopalians, it will mean a better sense of inclusion.
Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, tells Metro Weekly that the Episcopal Church's decision is significant not only because it signals a continued shift in attitudes, particularly among younger generations, but it epitomizes the balance marriage equality advocates have long argued for.
''This is a church that already supports civil marriage rights and freedom to marry under the law without discrimination,'' says Wolfson. ''When it comes to their religious celebrations and theology, they remain free to decide what is right for them. This is a real reminder that there's a separation between civil marriage and religious marriage, and government should not discriminate.''
Wolfson predicts the Presbyterian Church will follow the Episcopal Church's lead in two years when they take up the issue at their convention. Earlier this month, Presbyterian leaders rejected a motion to redefine marriage as ''a covenant between two people'' with only a 52 percent majority.