The Episcopal Diocese of Newark approved a controversial policy statement on sexual relationships last week that would offer the church's blessing on homosexual couples -- the first diocese in the country to take such a stand.

The affirmative vote of 115 to 35 among clergy and 234 to 128 among laity came after a year of study and discussion of the document drawn up by the diocesan Task Force on Human Sexuality and Family Life.

The document, which had the strong support of Bishop John Spong, has prompted efforts by conservative Episcopal groups around the country to bring formal heresy charges against the iconclastic bishop.

In its report to this year's convention, the sexuality task force said its recommendation had been studied in more than half of the 125 parishes in the diocese. "In the congregational discussions, there has been vigorous resentment toward the task force advocacy of change in the church's traditional stance on these issues," it said. "But there has also been -- often less outspoken -- relief and gratitude that the church may at last be willing to recognize the need for reconsideration."

In adopting the resolution, the convention affirmed "those pastors and congregations who minister to and seek to include persons living out alternate patterns of sexuality and family life.

"And be it further resolved that this diocese supports them as they receive, encourage and affirm such persons in responsible and faithful commitment to Christ, to each other, their families and to the gospel."

Spong and others differentiated between the church's blessing of relationships and gay marriages, which are not dealt with in the statement.

The vote on the resolution came after four hours of sometimes-heated debate. Part of the interest in Newark diocese's action springs from the fact that the Episcopal Church will consider a paper on human sexuality this year. Spong is a member of the commission drafting the paper.

Spong said he did not think approval of the Newark diocesan resolution would make much difference on the parish level. Parishes that have been "open and inclusive," he speculated, will continue to be, while those who have problems with the position taken "aren't going to change overnight because of a resolution."