In a historic change, noncelibate gays and lesbians can now lead parishes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

On a 559-451 vote taken Friday in Minneapolis at their biennial conference, delegates repealed the ELCA ban on gay clergy unless they agree to remain celibate. It makes ELCA, with 4.8 million members nationwide and 830,000 in Minnesota, the largest denomination in the country to welcome gays into the pulpits without restriction.

The vote did not surprise Ryan Schwarz from Washington, a member of Lutheran CORE, a group that opposed the motion. Nor did it dampen his interest in running for vice president, the highest lay position within the ELCA. That vote will be taken today.

"I remain a candidate," he said emphatically as he left the convention hall.

"We knew coming into this that we'd probably lose, but I plan to speak out in my speech [today] about how the leadership has failed this assembly."

As for Javen Swanson, the vote clarified a future that had been highly in doubt.

"The vote determined whether or not I was going to be able to continue through the ordination process," said the St. Paul resident, a seminarian who recently wed his same-sex partner in Connecticut.

"It was incredibly emotional. The weight of the decisions being made was palpable."

The new rules, which likely will go into effect in November, allow the installation of gay pastors but let individual congregations and synods make their own decisions about whether to choose a gay pastor.

Reaction to the vote was muted by design. Bishop Mark Hanson, the Minneapolis native who leads the ELCA, warned before the vote was taken that he wanted no overt reaction. Instead, the voters immediately went into prayer. When they finished, there was a rustle of discrete hugging and some wiping of tears in the visitors' gallery, but the delegates quickly returned to business.

No real surprise

The outcome of the vote was not surprising. The motion to change the rules was presented in four steps, with each resolution voted on separately. Although the most crucial vote -- the one on resolution No. 3, which specifically opens the pulpits to gays whether or not they remain celibate -- didn't take place until late afternoon, the passage of the first two resolutions made the voters' intentions clear.

It was the vote on the last resolution, which dealt with the procedure for implementing the change, that most surprised Emily Eastwood, executive director of St. Paul-based Lutherans Concerned/North America, a group that supported the change in clergy rules.

"Nearly two-thirds voted for the last resolution," she said. "After seeing how close the vote was on the third resolution, that was stunning to me. It showed that even those who didn't agree with the proposal are united with the ELCA in putting it into action."

Nowhere was the change of heart more evident than with former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie, a representative of the Minneapolis synod. Earlier in the day he tried to introduce an amendment that would have, in effect, made the rule change meaningless. That amendment was soundly defeated.

After the vote on the third resolution, when another opponent of the rule change threatened to pull out of the ELCA in protest, it was Quie who returned to the microphone to chastise such reactions.

"I was opposed to this [change], too, but that's my problem," he said. "You can't say now that you're going to leave the church. We have to live with this change for a while and see how it works out."

Others, however, were less conciliatory.

"We fought the good fight," said the Rev. Jaynan Clark, president of the Word Alone Network, which also opposed the rule change. "Unfortunately, now we are a divided institution."

After the plenary session ended, Hanson said that he hopes to spend this afternoon focused on healing any rift in membership that the vote might have caused.

"I am mindful that this is a very difficult day for those who did not support the prevailing decisions," he said. "And it's going to take some time to sort out how we will live together in light of these decisions. But it would be tragic if we walked away from one another."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392