Delegates from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted 670-323 to uphold a 1993 statement that says gay unions have no basis in Scripture and 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, which would include gay and lesbian Lutherans.
The church's unofficial policy remains the guidance offered by church bishops in 1993 that they find no basis in Scripture or tradition "for the establishment of an official ceremony of this church for the blessing of a homosexual relationship."
Delegates narrowly rejected, 491-484, language that referred specifically to "same-sex couples." Instead, pastors are called to provide care "for all to whom they minister."
The 1,015 voting delegates seemed to want to maintain a churchwide policy while also creating space for local churches to exercise their own vision of ministry. "I would prefer to have the definition of `pastoral care' made by my pastors on the ground in Minneapolis, not by someone in Pennsylvania or in southwest Minnesota," said Bishop Craig Johnson of Minneapolis.
However, delegates rejected attempts to put the church's official stamp of approval on gay relationships.
"Once we decide that blessing same-sex unions is acceptable, we will step out on a slippery slope that will lead to only God knows where," said Richard Cleary, a lay delegate from the Harrisburg, Pa.-based Lower Susquehanna Synod.
At the same time, delegates also rejected attempts to tighten the policy, such as a move to define marriage as between "a man and a woman," or to expressly prohibit the blessing of gay unions.
Delegates also approved a less controversial measure urging the 4.9 million-member church to find "ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements." That measure passed 851-127.
One bishop, Michael Neils of Arizona and southern Nevada, offered a policy 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 be selling out to culture may in fact be God, doing God's work, to continue to make all things new?" Neils asked.
The church has spent four years studying the issue of homosexuality, and the proposals from the task force were an attempt to find compromise. The gay issue has dogged the Lutherans, like other mainline Protestant churches, for decades.
A proposal to allow churches to bypass current policy and hire non-celibate gay clergy has generated substantial controversy. Conservatives complain that the recommendation goes too far, and liberals said it does not go far enough.
A coalition of six pro-gay groups said they welcomed attempts to loosen the policy, but said it would force gay clergy into "second-class" status with rules not required of heterosexual pastors.
On Thursday night, gay groups held their own worship service at a nearby hotel, where the bishop of Detroit blessed gay clergy and the bishop of Chicago blessed gay relationships.