THE Church of Scotland made the historic move last night of breaking away from hundreds of years of tradition by voting to consider allowing openly gay people to become ministers.
The vote came at the end of a long and passionate debate at the General Assembly in Edinburgh.
Members also moved to allow ministers and deacons who were in same-sex relationships before 2009 to remain in the church and move parishes if they so wished.
The vote followed six-and-a-half hours of discussion on the Same-Sex Relationships and Ministry report that was delivered by a special commission set up in 2009, in the wake of a debate over whether the openly gay minister Scott Rennie should be allowed to be appointed to Queen's Cross Church in Aberdeen.
In the end, the Assembly voted by 351 to 294 to "consider further the lifting of the moratorium on acceptance for training and ordination of persons in a same-sex relationship".
A theological commission was also instructed to prepare a report on the theological and practical applications of taking such a move and report back to the Assembly in 2013.
The result throws up the prospect of a schism within the Church as traditionalists could abandon the Kirk for moving away from what they believe is "scriptural truth".
The commission's report set out the potential repercussions of a move in the direction of a progressive stance.
It suggested that up to 4,300 ministers, elders, deacons and key parishioners, a fifth of Kirk leaders, could leave, along with as many as 100,000 parishioners.
The depth of the split between the progressive and traditionalists appeared during a debate over the section that would allow the induction of ministers and deacons "ordained before May 2009 who are in a same-sex relationship".
Traditionalists claimed that the section was a "Trojan horse" which could pull the church apart.
The Rev Andrew Coghill, of the Presbytery of Lewis, described the section as a "hand grenade". He said: "I believe it will be ruinous for unity of the church, potentially multiplying homosexual inductions the length and breadth of the country. The church almost pulled apart over one such induction."
He claimed that it would "forcibly" require presbyteries to accept the ordination of openly gay ministers, adding: "We are holding a hand grenade and we are being asked to pull the pin." Meanwhile, the Rev Andrew Randall, of Falkirk Presbytery, warned that the effect of the Assembly's move could have serious repercussions, claiming it would "in some large measure destroy" the current moratorium on ordaining openly gay ministers.
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He said: "It opens a door to anyone who may be in any same sex relationship of any nature and any duration to be freely inducted throughout our denomination.
"What this does for all practical purposes is reverse the church's current position in respect of its serving ministers."
He claimed that the report had shown clearly that the Kirk had a traditionalist stance and that no mandate for change had been given by congregations and presbyteries but said it was "inconsistent" on the back of this report to adopt "what amounts to a revisionist practice".
Countering their claims, the Rev Lezley Stewart, of Edinburgh Presbytery, said that they were "scaremongering" and that she did not expect a rush of openly gay ministers to come forward as a result of the section.
"We are not talking about new people, we are talking about people who are sitting in our midst," she said, adding that such people had been "so gracious" in maintaining their silence during the two-year moratorium.
In delivering the report, the commission's convener, Lord Patrick Hodge, acknowledged the lack of unity within the Kirk but said that it was important to embrace the breadth of opinions.
"The Church of Scotland is a church, not a sect," he said. "There has never been uniformity of view within it. But that does not diminish its value as an institution. On the contrary, I would venture to suggest that no substantial church has such uniformity of view.
"The road ahead should not be a struggle to win leverage in the decision-making bodies. We need a forum to allow that continuing discernment.
"The alternative is what social psychologists describe as 'group polarisation'. That is the tendency of groups of broadly like-minded individuals to make decisions that are more extreme than those its individual members would have reached by themselves."
He added that no matter what the result of the debate the divisions would not go away, but warned against fixating on the issue so much as to lose all sense of perspective.
The Kirk Moderator, the Rt Rev David Arnott, also cautioned members of the Assembly at the beginning of the debate to temper their tone, stating that the "eyes of the world" were upon them.
He said: "This is the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and debates of the General Assembly are known for their fairness, for their graciousness and for their respect, especially with those that we are in disagreement, and I know those will be the hallmarks of today's debate as well."
An attempt by former Moderator the Very Rev Dr Finlay Macdonald to introduce an amendment that would have effectively pushed any decision on for a further two years was rejected by both sides, with calls for "clarity" on the church's position. The Rev Francis Murphy, of Greenock Presbytery, said that he would not relish returning to his congregations to inform them that the General Assembly "had failed to make a decision on this matter" adding that they would be "disappointed, frustrated, angry".
The Rev Ivor MacDonald of the Presbytery of Locharron-Skye, called for a final decision, stating that the Kirk had discussed the issued "ad nauseam" and had received "report after report" on the subject.
Following a close-run vote, the amendment was defeated by 347 to 303, pushing the Assembly to decide between maintaining its current traditionalist stance or to take a progressive move.
Ministers from sister churches said that to vote to allow openly gay ministers would bring about greater persecution of Christians in Islamic countries.
Meanwhile, Dr MacDonald urged a vote for the progressive option, stating that it would allow more room for further movement later on.
It is likely now that those who had advocated the traditionalist option will put their names to a motion of dissent as a protest at the Assembly's decision.
Speaking after the debate, Mr Arnott urged unity. He said: "We very much hope that people who disagree with what has been decided will nevertheless remain in the church and work with us as we seek to find a way forward."
He added that it was "too early" to say what the impact the decision would be but added: "The National Church will continue to provide guidance and spiritual leadership for the people of Scotland."