By a 60 percent majority, the governing body of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted Friday to strike a standard requiring clergy to live in fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness.
"By this action, the church is saying, `We're not going to buy into a homophobic culture,'" said Michael Adee of More Light Presbyterians, a pro-gay organization.
Opponents denounced the vote and said the church wasn't following Scripture. Some predicted an exodus of members from the 2.5 million-member denomination.
"This is an incredibly sad day," said Joe Rightmyer, head of the conservative Presbyterians for Renewal. "What has crept into the Presbyterian Church is not just a difference of opinion, but unbelief."
To become church law, the vote must be ratified over the next year by a majority of the denomination's 173 presbyteries, or regional districts. If that happens, the church also will do away with a 1978 standard prohibiting the ordination of "practicing, self-affirming homosexuals."
Ratification would make the Presbyterian Church the largest denomination to endorse gay ordination.
At present, the United Church of Christ and the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches are the most visible Christian bodies that support the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians. But such ordinations are increasingly happening without denominational approval in Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran and United Methodist churches.
"All we want to do is serve," said Janie Adams Spahr, a lesbian who was ordained before the celibacy rule. Her call to serve a church was denied in 1992 by the denomination's highest court.
Before the vote, a small group of pro-gay demonstrators gathered outside the General Assembly in Louisville, where the Presbyterians were meeting. Inside, the mood was tense as more than 500 delegates, called commissioners, weighed their decision for more than two hours.
"In front of us is an emotional bomb," said the Rev. Paul Nelson of the San Diego Presbytery. "It's not time to divide the church."
Rena Wilson of the San Joaquin Presbytery in California was blunt about her opposition to gay pastors.
"I wouldn't want them being a leader in my church," she said.
Others spoke in favor of change, saying it was wrong not to allow gays and lesbians to use their gifts for ministry. Some supporters wore minister's stoles to express solidarity.
The debate over the ordination of gays and lesbians has divided the denomination for more than 20 years. The current standard was approved by the 1996 General Assembly and then ratified by the church's presbyteries.
The following year, a move to delete the requirement was overwhelmingly defeated. Then, in 1999, the assembly declared a two-year moratorium on the issue, which expired this year.
Moderator Jack Rogers asked the assembly to pause for prayer four times during Friday's debate. After the votes were tallied, he asked for silence and another moment of prayer.
"The Scriptures tell us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep," he said later. "I'm rejoicing and weeping today."
Because opponents of change were visibly upset by the outcome, supporters refrained from celebrating. There were no cheers, though some commissioners exchanged hugs.
"Let's just say there's not going to be a post-Super Bowl celebration," said Chuck Weaver, a commissioner from Waco, Texas. "I'm happy with the vote, but I'm sensitive to those who feel we just made a great mistake."
Afterward, many turned their attention to the voting ahead in the presbyteries, which isn't expected to be finished until spring. Some predicted a long, rancorous battle.
"The liberals may have won the assembly but lost the church," said Parker T. Williamson, head of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee.
He said the conservatives' Confessing Church Movement will lobby hard to defeat any change in ordination standards. The movement includes more than 400 churches united by their belief in biblical infallibility, heterosexual marriage and in Jesus as the only way of salvation.
This is the second consecutive year that presbyteries have been asked to vote on controversial proposals about homosexuality. This spring, presbyteries defeated a proposal that would have banned same-sex union ceremonies.
Supporters of gay ordination were optimistic about the eventual outcome of this vote.
"We have our work cut out for us," said Tony De La Rosa, an openly gay elder at Calvary Presbyterian Church in South Pasadena, Calif. "But I think the prospects are good that we will eventually prevail."