For nearly 23 years, Lisa Larges has sought to become a Presbyterian minister, but she has twice been formally rejected because of a long-standing ban on gay ordination by the Presbyterian Church USA.
But in what appears to be the first national test of a 2006 policy change by the church, Larges, of San Francisco, has moved a step closer to joining the clergy.
After a debate that lasted deep into the night Tuesday, the San Francisco Presbytery, a regional governing body of the national church, voted 167 to 151 to support Larges' application for ministry, despite opponents' warnings that the action violated the church's constitution and would immediately be appealed.
"I'm in shock," Larges, 44, said Wednesday. "I still feel stunned, honestly, and deeply grateful both to the folks who supported me and to the presbytery for stepping up."
The Presbyterian Church USA, the nation's largest Presbyterian group with 2.3 million members, is among many mainline Protestant denominations that are struggling to reconcile conflicting beliefs on biblical authority and the role of gays in the church. In some, including the Episcopal Church, the divide is so deep that many fear it may tear denominations apart.
Larges, who came out soon after her graduation from a San Francisco seminary in 1989, must yet pass a lengthy oral examination by the presbytery before she can be ordained.
That review, known as the "trials of ordination," could come as early as April but is likely to be delayed by administrative challenges, according to all sides.
"We are taking immediate steps to stop the process," said the Rev. Mary Naegeli, a seminary professor who argued against the ordination during Tuesday's meeting. "This really is the defining case for the Presbyterian church on this question."
Larges' supporters said they hoped the presbytery's decision would be upheld.
"I'm happy, because I feel like the church made exactly the right decision," said the Rev. Christina Graham, associate pastor for youth and families at First Presbyterian Church in Livermore, near Oakland. "But it was very contentious, and obviously we aren't united in this decision."
In 2006, the Presbyterians' General Assembly voted to allow some flexibility for local and regional church bodies to approve the ordination of gay men and lesbians on a case-by-case basis, despite long-standing church law that requires clergy and lay leaders either to be married to a member of the opposite sex or to be single and chaste.
The compromise, which was controversial with many on each side of the debate, gave local presbyteries the right to ordain candidates who declare conscientious objections to specific Presbyterian teachings, as long as those are not considered "essentials" of church belief.
In her written objection, known as a "statement of departure," Larges was straightforward. She wrote that she could not abide by the church's requirement that she be married to a man or be celibate in order to become a minister.
She called the provision a "mar upon the church and a stumbling block to its mission" and said it did not express essentials of Presbyterian faith.
Larges is the national coordinator for That All May Freely Serve, an organization that advocates for gay Presbyterian clergy candidates. In telephone interviews this week, she said her own such journey started in 1985, as she began her training at San Francisco Theological Seminary and was soon selected for ministry training by a presbytery in Minnesota, where she grew up.
But after graduation, "I decided that I couldn't pursue the ministry and stay in the closet," Larges said. She notified the committee of her sexual orientation, but her candidacy in the Twin Cities presbytery went forward until it was turned down in 1992 by the church's highest judicial body.
She moved to San Francisco and tried again, beginning in 1997. She met annually with the committee that oversaw candidates for ordination for the San Francisco Presbytery. In 2004, the committee voted against her ordination but, with a view toward a possible shift in churchwide policy, also let her continue as a candidate.
When the General Assembly approved the policy change in 2006, Larges decided to try for ordination a third time.
"I've been around the church for so long now that I'd rather do this myself than have someone who's just out of seminary go through all this," said Larges, who is also blind. "And it's important to me to make clear that my understanding of who I am as a lesbian woman is in keeping with Scripture and not counter to it."
Larges has won praise from all sides for her preaching ability, her candor and her dedication to her cause.