Bishops at the Episcopal General Convention in Anaheim, California voted Monday in favor of lifting their three-year moratorium on the consecration of gay bishops, the AP reported.

The decision will likely increase mounting pressure from other Anglican Communion churches – of which the Episcopal Church is the American branch – to strike out on their own over the issue.

Several mostly African churches have broken off over the issue already.

The Episcopal Church first opened the row with its decision to consecrate the first openly gay bishop, Rev. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003. Robinson, 61, lives in Weare, New Hampshire with his husband.

The resolution approved Monday – which still needs to be reconciled with a version passed Sunday by the church's other legislative body, the House of Deputies, made up of clergy – allows dioceses to consider gay candidates to the episcopacy, but does not instruct them to do so.

Despite the 2006 moratorium on openly gay clergy, fractures in the Episcopal Church continued, and soon disaffected dioceses splintered over the issue, forming the Anglican Church of North America. The new group claims 100,000 members, the New York Times reported.

Last month, over the loud objections of conservatives the Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian denomination, approved the appointment of an openly gay minister, Rev. Scott Rennie. The church then backtracked a bit and placed a two-year moratorium on the ordination of gay clergy.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who as leader of the Church of England is the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, said he was disappointed by the vote. Williams has struggled to impede dioceses from defecting over the issue of gay clergy,

“I regret the fact that there is no will to observe the moratorium in such a significant part of the church in North America,” he said.

“Along with many in the communion, I hope and pray that there won't be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart,” Williams said in his opening address to the Episcopal General Convention.

“If we – if I – had felt that we could do perfectly well without you, there wouldn't be a problem,” he added.