The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Friday approved a resolution to allow gays and lesbians in same-sex relationships to be ordained.
ELCA's highest legislative body voted 559-451 during the biennial Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis.
It was a moment of celebration for supporters of the resolution, which overturned the denomination's ban on noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy. But opponents warn the action will likely lead to an exodus of churches.
"This will cause an ever greater loss in members and finances. I can't believe the church I loved and served for 40 years can condone what God condemns," said the Rev. Richard Mahan, pastor at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Charleston, W.Va., according to The Associated Press. "Nowhere in Scripture does it say homosexuality and same-sex marriage is acceptable to God. Instead, it says it is immoral and perverted."
After the vote, the conservative Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Reform), which had been officially recognized by the ELCA, severed ties with the 4.6 million-member denomination and declared itself an independent Lutheran organization.
"We can no longer in good conscience participate in this relationship with the offices in Chicago," said the Rev. Paull Spring of State College, Pa., chair of Lutheran CORE.
The conservative group announced that it will host a gathering next month in Indianapolis to discuss what the future for "faithful Lutherans" who uphold the authority of Scripture might look like and how they can work together.
The denomination's head, Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, expressed concern that Friday's decision would push individuals and congregations to leave.
But he encouraged them to stay in "the conversation."
"Are you willing to stay engaged with us in the conversation about how you can, with integrity, stay in this church body so that we might respect your bound conscience?" Hanson posed during a news conference.
He also noted that he was pleased with the respect that has been shown from both sides of the gay clergy debate over the past eight years.
The resolution to change ELCA's ministry policies was put forward by the ELCA Task Force on Human Sexuality which had been assigned to develop a social statement on human sexuality as well as make recommendations to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly on changes to policies regarding practicing homosexual persons.
The panel's social statement, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," was narrowly adopted on Wednesday. The document acknowledges that there is neither a consensus nor an emerging one in the denomination on homosexuality and also recommends that the ELCA commit itself to finding ways to recognize lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.
The Rev. Mark Chavez of Landisville, Pa., director of Lutheran CORE, renounced this week's decisions and believes they will damage the denomination's relationships with partner churches and its ecumenical relationships (with Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and most Protestant Churches) around the world.
"The Anglican Communion is in the process of splitting apart because of the actions of The Episcopal Church. The ELCA seems unconcerned about a similar effect on the LWF (Lutheran World Federation)," Chavez said.
Lutheran CORE has invited like-minded Lutherans to direct funding away from the ELCA.
"We cannot support this departure from God's Word," said Chavez.