America’s largest Lutheran denomination on Saturday urged its bishops to refrain from disciplining gay ministers who are in committed same-sex relationships, but rejected measures that would permit the further ordination of gays churchwide.

Those in favour of full inclusion of gays were still encouraged, calling the resolution a powerful statement in support of clergy with same-sex partners.

According to the Associated Press, the conservative group Lutheran CORE was critical of the vote, saying bishops would now feel more secure in ignoring denomination policy.

The 538-431 vote came on the final day of a weeklong meeting in Chicago and followed an emotional debate over how the denomination should interpret the Bible on homosexuality.

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson said the new measure expressed a desire to find “some space and place” for how the church might live together.

“I interpret that as a way to reflect this journey of conversation, discussion, decision, seeking to be faithful to the authority of Scripture, the interpretation of our confession and mindful of the very context in which we are engaged in God’s mission,” he said, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Like other major Protestant denominations, the ELCA has been struggling for decades to reconcile differences on the issue.

An ELCA task force is near the end of an eight-year study on human sexuality, which is expected to culminate in the 2009 release of a statement that will heavily influence church policy.

Current clergy standards require ministers to “abstain from homosexual sexual relationships.”

Bradley Schmeling, an ELCA pastor in Atlanta, was removed from the clergy roster this year after he told his bishop he was in a relationship with a man.

At the Chicago gathering, dozens of gay and lesbian ministers and congregation members defiantly proclaimed their sexuality.

The AP reports that they distributed a prayer booklet that included first-person essays on the pain of being forced to choose between ministry and a lifelong partner.

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