Christian conservatives called on 17 "a sad day for Australia" after the country's third-largest church denomination became the first to openly allow practicing homosexuals to become ministers, CNSNews reported.
The Uniting Church in Australia (UCA), an amalgamation of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches, voted at its national assembly in Melbourne on a subject the church has debated upon for almost 20 years.
During two days of at times impassioned debate, opponents among the 265 delegates warned that the issue could split the church.
Until now, the denomination has had a blurred policy on the ordination of homosexuals - essentially "don't ask, don't tell - but Thursday's decision means the practice will have its official blessing.
UCA spokesman Kim Cain said from Melbourne the sexuality question had been on the agenda at previous assemblies, but had never been voted on. "This is the first one that's got through."
The decision allowed individual parishes to make choices on the issue on a case-by-case basis, he said.
"It's a clarification on where the Uniting Church already stood and clearly regional bodies can make their own determination."
As such, the motion was presented as a compromise between the church's "gay lobby" and conservative evangelicals.
That is unlikely to placate opponents, however.
Within the UCA is a grouping called Evangelical Members, which has predicted an exodus.
"God does not have two minds on sexuality," said the group's national spokeswoman, Mary Hawkes, warning that some members may well decide to "pack their bags and go."
During the debate, a lesbian minister in her 60s argued in favor of the proposal, telling the gathering of her decision to end her marriage after 32 years.
"This is not primarily about sex," said Dorothy McRae-McMahon. "This is about love. It's about the freedom for me and people like me to love another person with body, mind, heart and soul."
An opposing view came from evangelical Rod James, who said the proposal was the first step towards a situation of "unbounded perversion."
Also opposing the motion was the chairman of a grouping within the church representing indigenous Aborigines, who said homosexual relationships were neither right nor godly.
It was difficult for Aborigines even to discuss such matters in public, he said.
McRae-McMahon said she would be sad if the move did prompt some to leave.
"But there are many times in the history of the church where decisions are made and people cannot live with them," she was quoted as saying.
"When the church fought against slavery, people left the church."
The UCA decision comes at a time the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church in North America, Britain and elsewhere has been grappling with questions of whether homosexuals should be ordained, and whether same-sex unions should be permitted.
UCA president Dean Drayton said in a statement the vote was significant in that "it clarified the situation in the church and sought to maintain the unity of the church, by acknowledging our diversity of understanding and interpretation."
He said he hoped the wider church would see the decision as one that showed "maturity."
"Instead of one view prevailing over the other, we agree to acknowledge that there are differences of interpretation and understanding and seek learn to live with each other despite those differences."
Drayton's statement did not refer to concerns that some members may leave the denomination.
A Melbourne-based Christian ethical action group, Salt Shakers, said Thursday the UCA majority had "turned its back on the Bible" by voting as it did.
"The Bible is clear, but obviously people's minds are clouded," said the organization's executive officer, Peter Stokes.
He urged Christians to "pray for those who will now have to decide if they stay unequally yoked with those who say the church has had a wrong interpretation of the Scriptures about sexuality for 2,000 years."
Stokes said Thursday's vote did not change the fact that same-sex attraction was "a sin."
"It just sends a false message of 'rightness' to people who struggle with homosexuality."
The UCA, which was formed in 1977, has some 1.3 million adherents, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
That makes it the country's third largest Christian denomination, after the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.
Earlier during the UCA's assembly, its outgoing president lashed out at the Australian, American and British governments over the war on Iraq.