Orlando, Fla., Aug. 12 - The nation's largest Lutheran church on Friday upheld a policy that frowns on blessing same-sex unions, but left thedoor open for pastors to provide "faithful pastoral care" to allparishioners as they see fit.

Delegates from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted 670-323to uphold a 1993 statement that says gay unions have no basis in Scriptureand cannot be an "official action" of the church.

Yet, at the same time, the church said it would trust local churches to"discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care" to all parishioners, whichwould include gay and lesbian Lutherans.

The church's unofficial policy remains the guidance offered by churchbishops in 1993 that they find no basis in Scripture or tradition "for theestablishment of an official ceremony of this church for the blessing of ahomosexual relationship."

Delegates narrowly rejected, 491-484, language that referredspecifically to "same-sex couples." Instead, pastors are called to providecare "for all to whom they minister."

The 1,015 voting delegates seemed to want to maintain a churchwidepolicy while also creating space for local churches to exercise their ownvision of ministry. "I would prefer to have the definition of `pastoral care' made by mypastors on the ground in Minneapolis, not by someone in Pennsylvania or insouthwest Minnesota," said Bishop Craig Johnson of Minneapolis.

However, delegates rejected attempts to put the church's official stampof approval on gay relationships.

"Once we decide that blessing same-sex unions is acceptable, we willstep out on a slippery slope that will lead to only God knows where," saidRichard Cleary, a lay delegate from the Harrisburg, Pa.-based LowerSusquehanna Synod.

At the same time, delegates also rejected attempts to tighten thepolicy, such as a move to define marriage as between "a man and a woman," orto expressly prohibit the blessing of gay unions.

Delegates also approved a less controversial measure urging the 4.9million-member church to find "ways to live together faithfully in the midstof disagreements." That measure passed 851-127.

One bishop, Michael Neils of Arizona and southern Nevada, offered apolicy that would have allowed clergy to bless "relationships of promise"between gay couples. That measure failed, 665-334.

"God works through history, and is it possible that what seems to beselling out to culture may in fact be God, doing God's work, to continue tomake all things new?" Neils asked.

The church has spent four years studying the issue of homosexuality, andthe proposals from the task force were an attempt to find compromise. Thegay issue has dogged the Lutherans, like other mainline Protestant churches,for decades.

A proposal to allow churches to bypass current policy and hirenon-celibate gay clergy has generated substantial controversy. Conservativescomplain that the recommendation goes too far, and liberals said it does notgo far enough.

A coalition of six pro-gay groups said they welcomed attempts to loosenthe policy, but said it would force gay clergy into "second-class" statuswith rules not required of heterosexual pastors.

On Thursday night, gay groups held their own worship service at a nearbyhotel, where the bishop of Detroit blessed gay clergy and the bishop ofChicago blessed gay relationships.