A Seventh-Day Adventist Church is seen in Takoma Park, Md. Seventh-day Adventists voted Wednesday that individual regions of the Protestant denomination cannot choose to ordain female ministers. (Photo by Amy Reinink)

Seventh-day Adventists voted Wednesday that individual regions of the 18 million-member Protestant denomination cannot choose to ordain female ministers.

Although the vote at a major conference was one of the most watched in years by the denomination, its specific purpose and impact were not immediately clear.

Leaders from the denomination, based in Silver Spring, Md., set aside all of Wednesday for discussion, pleaded for unity and encouraged all delegates to vote their conscience. For hours, people went to the microphone and spoke about how the vote could affect Adventist unity, women and scripture.

Dozens of Adventist women in North America already serve in various pastoral roles, even though they are not recognized by Adventists in the more conservative Southern Hemisphere — nor by some Adventists in the West. North American leaders have said they are aiming to double the number of female clergy from about 150 out of the continent’s 3,000 clergy members.

Some saw the vote as largely symbolic, proof of the gap between the varying cultures in the faith in different parts of the world, while others said it could be used to cause schism. Still others predicted that nothing would change for a faith that in its 152 years has resisted creating much doctrine and rules.

“I don’t know if it makes a huge difference to women in this part of the world — except in how you feel,” said Bonnie Dwyer, editor of the independent, progressive-leaning Adventist magazine Spectrum. “But it shuts down the people in Africa rather significantly,” she said, referring to a movement there toward ordaining women. “That’s really sad, at least from my point of view.’’

The vote was the most prominent and intense topic on the agenda for the Adventists at their once-every-five-years meeting, called the General Conference. Tens of thousands of Adventists are in San Antonio until Saturday for the meeting.

“Some people support or oppose the question because it could lead to different other practices, and that would be a strike against unity. Some support or oppose it because of how they read the Bible. Some feel it’s a cultural question and one part of the church shouldn’t restrain the other” from reaching people, said Garrett Caldwell, spokesman for the global church. “I don’t know if we can predict what will happen. I wouldn’t want to predict.”

Ted Wilson, president of the General Conference, emotionally asked the delegates for unity after the vote.

“I appeal to all of us in this church to put away all differences of opinion,” Wilson said. “We’re one family, I plead with you.”

The delegates, who represent Adventists around the world — including Africa, South America and the Caribbean, where the faith has been booming — were asked this question: “Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry?” The vote was 1,381 no and 977 yes.

The issue of female clergy has special complexity for Adventists, who to this day revere one of their founders who saw visions — a writer named Ellen White — a woman described in documents from her lifetime as “ordained.”

Discussions about what it means to be ordained, what the Bible says about women’s leadership, what to do with women’s spiritual gifts and whether different regions of the faith can disagree culminated in the vote.

Western Adventists say the ban on female leaders is holding back their ability to function in this culture, while proponents of the status quo say they read scripture as banning women from overseeing men.

Adventists in North America, Europe and a few other spots have been ordaining women to function essentially as clergy, but they are not considered ordained in the same way that men are. They are banned from leading regional conferences or from establishing or closing churches, Caldwell said.