The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has voted to find ways to allow congregations to recognize gays and lesbians who are in long-term monogamous relationships.
The measure is one of four proposals delegates are considering Friday that would challenge the church's ban on gay clergy. It passed by a vote of 619-to-402.
Timothy Mumm, from the South Central Synod of Wisconsin, supported the measure. He said today's understanding of homosexuality is different from that of Biblical times.
"I can't believe that God has put me or others in a no-win situation," Mumm said. "Let us be like Jesus and minister to the needs of the people in front of us and not to the letter of the law. I urge us to vote "yes" on this resolution."
Richard Mahan of the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod opposed the first measure.
"I can not believe nor do I understand how the church that I have served and loved for over 40 years can condone what god condemns," Mahan said. "We all sin and fall short of the glory of God, but God says we are to repent and turn away from our sin and homosexual acts is a sin."
This morning's vote is a precursor to a vote set for this afternoon that could allow homosexuals to service as ministers in the church.
Gays and lesbians are currently allowed to serve as Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ministers only if they remain celibate.
At 4.7 million members and about 10,000 congregations in the United States, the ELCA would be one of the largest U.S. Christian denominations yet to take a more gay-friendly stance on clergy.
"We are today part of a church denomination that is changing, and it will make possible sexual moral standards that are contrary to the Bible - which is what brings Jesus closer to us," said convention delegate Al Quie, a former Republican governor of Minnesota.
The debate over the so-called "ministry recommendations" got under way first thing Friday, and Quie proposed an alternative proposal: "Practicing homosexual persons are excluded from rostered leadership in this church."
The proposal, which would have left the church's policy more or less unchanged, failed. In addition, conservatives lost an important vote Wednesday night when the convention's 1,045 delegates approved by a two-thirds supermajority a "social statement on human sexuality" that said the ELCA could accommodate diverging views on homosexuality.
The Rev. Katrina Foster, a pastor in the Metropolitan New York Synod, pointed out that the church has ordained woman and divorced people in violation of a literal interpretation of scripture.
"We can learn not to define ourselves by negation," Foster said. "By not only saying what we are against, which always seems to be the same - against gay people. We should be against poverty. I wish we were as zealous about that."
Some critics of the proposal have predicted its passage could cause individual congregations to split off from the ELCA, as has been the case with other Christian denominations, including the Episcopal Church.
The Rev. Tim Housholder of St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove, Minn., who spoke in favor of Quie's alternative, described himself as a rostered ELCA pastor "at least for a few more hours."
"This assembly is not the ELCA," Housholder said. "This is an agenda-driven group."