Bishops of Norway’s Lutheran church voted on Tuesday by a close majority to allow gay pastors, a church official told a press conference.

The Bishops Conference, a seven-man and four-woman panel of 11 Norwegian bishops, voted six to five for the measure, said their official representative, Olav Skjevesland. The panel is a consultative body.

Theological doctrine currently followed in the Norwegian church officially excludes people living in a homosexual union from officiating at services.

Another Norwegian theological consultative body, the 20-member Laerenemnd, met in January 2006, but could not agree a course of action.

At least two openly gay men currently serve as ministers after they were hired by liberal bishops.

The question must now be defined at the Lutheran church’s next general Synod, the highest decision-making representative body, which will meet from November 12th-17th this year.

In 1995 and 1997 the Church of Norway General Synod established a guideline that stated that people in a registered same-sex partnership could hold some positions in the Church but not positions of ordained ministry.

While there is broad agreement in the Church of Norway on the usefulness of registered partnership as a legal framework for homosexual persons living together, attitudes in the church are deeply divided on the ethical issue of homosexuality as such.

This influences the assessment of whether persons living in same-sex partnership should be allowed to serve in an ordained ministry.

In a decision taken on 13th September, the Church of Norway National Council stated in a recommendation to the General Synod that there is no longer the relatively high degree of consensus in the Church of Norway on this sensitive issue as there was in 1995 and 1997.

The National Council stated, therefore, that it finds it difficult to continue the application of the earlier Synod decisions.

The recommendation bases itself on what is already Norwegian church law, such that the formal authority in matters of ordination and appointment to positions of ordained ministry lies not with the General Synod, but with the relevant bishop and the appropriate appointing church body.

For pastors and deacons, the diocesan councils are the appointing bodies. In light of this, the National Council recommends that the General Synod no longer gives general guidelines to the bishops and appointing bodies with regard to ordination and appointment of candidates living in registered same-sex partnerships to positions of ordained ministry.

If the Church of Norway General Synod follows the recommendation by the National Council, it will be recognised in the church that the ecclesial bodies responsible for appointments may either appoint, or not appoint, persons living in same-sex partnership.

In their procedure they can, if they so wish, take the candidates’ civil status into consideration, without being in breach of Norwegian law or guidelines by the General Synod.

Out of the Council’s 15 members, 11 voted in favour of the recommendation, whereas 4 voted for a postponement of the whole issue to a later stage.

The statement says: “The Church of Norway National Council recommends that the General Synod give expression to its understanding that many members of the church are touched directly by this issue and that there are many who feel that their place in the church is at stake.

“Church leaders should work continuously on attitudes and forms of communication, so that fellowship in the church is felt to be open, clear and inclusive.”