Delegates to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America voted this evening on a series of resolutions to allow gays and lesbians, in committed relationships, to serve as clergy.
The fourth and final proposal, which was meant to "respect the bound conscinece of those with whom we disagree," passed Friday night by a margin of 667-307.
A resolution voted on earlier in the day, which passed by a vote of 559-451, is the one that commits the church to "finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as professional leaders."
That pleased Bradley Schmeling of Georgia, who says he was defrocked as a Lutheran pastor when his relationship with another male pastor become widely known.
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"I feel like we made a significant step today towards being a church that can welcome everybody and receive everybody's gifts," he said. "My hope for the church now is that we can find a way to sort of put all this together. So we can figure out how to be one family in the midst of the disagreement."
Before today's vote, gay and lesbians were allowed to serve as ministers only if they remained celibate.
Rev. Anita Hill, co-pastor of St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St Paul, said the vote is a positive step for the church.
"This provides the possibility that I might, before my ministry is over, I might actually be on the professional roster of the ELCA for which I'm grateful and which i believe my congregation will receive joyfully," Hill said.
Bishop Gary Wollersheim of Illinois said he had no doubt the church should treat gay and straight clergy the same.
"It's a matter of justice. It's a matter of hospitality. And I believe it is what Jesus would have us do," he said.
Opponents said the policy goes against clear guidance in the Scriptures that homosexuality is sinful. They have predicted some congregations could split with the ELCA over the issue.
But Craig Johnson of North Dakota said he fears many people may now leave the church in anger.
"When we meet in 2017, I hope we do not lament with this song: Where have all the Lutherans gone, long time passing? Where have all the Lutherans gone, long time ago? Gone through conscience, everyone. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"
Jaynan Clark, who heads a group that has opposed an expanded role for gay clergy, said "it's disappointing when a church thinks it can vote on the word of God, because the word of God is not up for a vote."
"We've got all the rest of the Lutheran bodies with us," she said. "And most of the Lutheran churches in the world."
The 1,045 delegates to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's convention voted on the gay clergy proposal after a weeklong convention in Minneapolis.
With the proposal's approval, the church will now join a growing list of mainline Christian denominations to liberalize attitudes toward homosexuality.
Earlier this week, the Assembly of the denomination voted on a related matter--the ELCA's social statement on human sexuality--which says that the church is open enough to allow different perspectives on the potentially polarizing issue. The statement is a 34-page document that attempts to create a theological framework allowing for disagreements within the denomination over homosexuality.
In 2003, the 2 million-member Episcopal Church of the United States consecrated its first openly gay bishop, deepening a long-running rift in the worldwide Anglican Communion about homosexuality and Scripture.
Last month in Anaheim, Calif., the Episcopal General Convention declared gays and lesbians in committed relationships eligible for "any ordained ministry." The move came despite Anglican world leaders' calls for a clear moratorium on consecrating another gay bishop.
The divide in the Episcopal Church in the last few years has led to the formation of the more conservative Anglican Church in North America, which claims 100,000 members.
(MPR reporter Madeleine Baran and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)