The nation's largest Lutheran denomination Friday reversed a long-standing ban on the appointment of non-celibate gays to the clergy, becoming the second major Christian group in a month to liberalize policies governing who may minister the faith.
Leaders of the 4.6-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in Minneapolis, gave local congregations the authority to choose ministers or lay leaders who may be in "lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."
The decision follows a similar action last month by officers of the Episcopal Church, who lifted a de facto ban on the consecration of partnered gay bishops.
Theologians and church analysts said both votes could influence other Protestant denominations -- including Presbyterians and United Methodists -- that are struggling to reconcile conflicts over homosexuality and the Bible.
One scholar characterized the move by the two groups as a "watershed moment in American Christianity" that could further divide churches already laboring to stem the flight of traditionalists.
"Those who have been actively campaigning for a change of this sort in the other mainline denominations will see this as a sign that they should intensify their efforts," Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said in an e-mail. "For those of us who have opposed this on biblical grounds, it is bound to reinforce the sense that we are no longer welcome in the mainline."
Conservatives in the Lutheran church condemned the decisions by the Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, saying the actions on gay and lesbian clergy run counter to Biblical teachings about marriage.
One prominent group, Lutheran CORE, called for Lutheran congregations to direct funds away from the national church and instead give to "faithful" ministries within and outside the denomination. The organization is hosting a meeting next month in Indianapolis to plan what it called a "united common future" with traditional Lutherans.
"We cannot support this departure from God's word," the Rev. Mark Chavez, the group's director, said in a statement.
The national church's presiding bishop, Mark S. Hanson, acknowledged that the change in church policies has caused strains on both sides of the debate and on others who remain undecided.
Even as Hanson described the deliberations over the issue as heartfelt, he appealed directly to those on the losing end. All Lutherans, he said, share a common faith.
"It's going to take time to sort out how we live together in light of these decisions," Hanson said in a webcast news conference. "It would be tragic if we talked away from one another. This is a time for thoughtful, engaged, prayerful, imaginative response."
Lutherans voted on the ministry policy two days after they adopted a new social statement on human sexuality that reiterated the church's definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, but that also said the church had yet to reach consensus on same-sex unions.
The statement, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," had been eight years in the making and is intended to guide church members in setting policy.
More than 1,000 representatives at the national assembly debated the clerical issue for more than five hours before deciding to open the ministry to gays and lesbians who are in relationships. In the past, gays and lesbians could become clergy only if they remained chaste.
The resolution that won approval gives local Lutheran leaders "structured flexibility" to make decisions but does not require congregations to pick candidates they do not want.
The Lutheran leaders voted for related resolutions that called for the church to commit itself to recognize and support same-gender relationships and to "respect the bound consciences of all."
The resolutions drew tearful testimony from supporters and opponents, both of whom cited the Bible in their arguments.
"There are people in homosexual relationships in our churches. They live in communion," said Pastor Serena Sellers of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. "I believe it's important to the morality of our church that we . . . give all people the opportunity to be held accountable for the choices they make."
But the Rev. Catherine Ammlung from the Delaware-Maryland Synod saw it differently.
"What had been the teaching of my church is now reduced to personal opinion," she said. "Many of us who are people of good will are left as ethical . . . freelancers."
Advocates of change rejoiced after the voting ended, saying the Churchwide Assembly had embraced greater fairness.
"Today I am proud to be a Lutheran," said Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America, a gay rights group in the church.
She said gay ministers would now be "free to claim who they are and to have the love and support of a lifelong partner . . . which is all we ever asked."
Outside observers sought to put the decisions into a historical context. One academic views the inclusion of gays in church life as inevitable, and said that the uproar would eventually die down.
"As these decisions get made, it's getting clearer where they're going," said Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook, a professor of practical theology and religious education at Claremont School of Theology. "You can't partition justice."