OSLO, Norway, July 13 (AP)--Norway's minister of churches upheld the appointment of an openly gay clergyman Thursday in a precedent-setting ruling that defies the state Lutheran church's religious guidelines.

The decision makes Jens Torstein Olsen the first clergyman hired to preach in Church of Norway while openly living in a homosexual relationship. It also has caused furious debate that some fear could split the church.

"I have today employed Olsen as chaplain for the Majorstuen congregation (in Oslo)," said Minister of Churches and Education Trond Giske. ``He was clearly the best qualified.''

In 1997, the church's highest body, its 85-member national congress, ruled that clergy who enter homosexual partnerships could not hold consecrated jobs. However, the church, which counts more 85 percent of Norway's 4.5 million people as members, has remained locked in an anguished debate over homosexual clergy.

Last month, the Oslo Bishop's Council, made up of clergy and church members, voted 4-3 to employ 51-year-old Olsen, even though he noted on his application that he was living with a gay partner.

The council minority appealed to Giske, who formally employs state church clergy, saying the appointment violated the national congress ruling.

"I had to decide whether the church congress can bind a bishop's council in employment question," Giske said at a news conference. "The rules clearly say that the church council cannot."

Tore Kopperud, deputy leader of the church's national congress, said the ruling sets a bad precedent of the government deciding theological questions.

"No one wants a government minister as the church's judge in theological questions," he was quoted as telling the Norwegian news agency NTB.

Olsen lost a 1988 lawsuit against the church council when it denied him a job preaching because he was openly living with a man. He has been fighting to be allowed to be a gay preacher since then.

"I'm really looking forward to starting as a chaplain," he was quoted as telling the Norwegian news agency NTB.

After Olsen's selection in June, seven of Norway's 11 bishops issued a statement strongly opposing the decision. At the time, head Bishop Odd Bondevik said the appointment could split the church, where the issue of gay clergy has already led to bitter disputes.

Last year, Norway's only female bishop, Rosmarie Kohn, faced a revolt among her own clergy when she allowed openly lesbian Siri Sunde to return to the pulpit. Sunde had been barred after she married her female companion. Gay marriages are legal in Norway, with all the rights of heterosexual marriages except church weddings and the right to adopt.

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