A US Protestant denomination has approved a resolution allowing the ordination of non celibate gay and lesbian clergy.

The Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly in Birmingham, Alabama, this week welcomed a report on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, which addressed the divides in Protestant groups over sexuality.

A vote of 298 to 221 decided that it would be up to individual bodies of the 2.3 million member Church to decide on who they can ordain.

The report states that “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness,” is a basis for ordination, but allows groups to deduce whether the restriction is “essential.”

“Today we saw the Presbyterian process of doing things at its best,” said the Reverend Joan Gray, moderator of the 217th General Assembly, at a press conference following the vote. “We saw people working fairly and treating each other justly.”

Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, the Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, said, “With the vote today we have not altered the fundamentals, we have the same standards as before. The report encourages a more pastoral approach to ordination and encourages our governing bodies to do a thorough work of examining people for office.”

However, immediately after the vote, 13 evangelical groups issued a statement claiming the decision would “throw our denomination into crisis.”

“(It) marks a profound deviation from biblical requirements, and we cannot accept, support, or tolerate it. We will take the steps necessary to be faithful to God.”

The proposal was one of seven contained in the report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (TTF) that has spent the last four years looking for ways to help the deeply divided denomination stay together despite its differences.

Four other recommendations passed by an overwhelming 87% majority. They “strongly encourage” all Presbyterians to witness to the church’s oneness and “to avoid division into separate denominations”; to urge congregations, governing bodies and other groups of Presbyterians to engage in “intensive discernment” in the face of difficult issues; to study the theological reflection section of the TTF report; and to encourage church bodies to “explore the use of alternative forms of discernment and decision-making as a complement to parliamentary procedure.”