After three decades of debate over its stance on homosexuality, members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted on Tuesday to change the definition of marriage in the church’s constitution to include same-sex marriage.
The final approval by a majority of the church’s 171 regional bodies, known as presbyteries, enshrines a change recommended last year by the church’s General Assembly. The vote amends the church’s constitution to broaden marriage from being between “a man and a woman” to “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”
The Presbytery of the Palisades meeting in Fair Lawn, N.J., put the ratification count over the top on Tuesday on a voice vote. With many presbyteries still left to vote, the tally early Tuesday evening stood at 86 presbyteries in favor, 41 against and one tied.
“Finally, the church in its constitutional documents fully recognizes that the love of gays and lesbian couples is worth celebrating in the faith community,” said the Rev. Brian D. Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which is based in Kansas City and advocates gay inclusion in the church. “There is still disagreement, and I don’t mean to minimize that, but I think we are learning that we can disagree and still be church together.”
The church, with about 1.8 million members, is the largest of the nation’s Presbyterian denominations, but it has been losing congregations and individual members as it has moved to the left theologically over the past several years. There was a wave of departures in and after 2011, when the presbyteries ratified a decision to ordain gays and lesbians as pastors, elders and deacons, and that may have cleared the way for Tuesday’s vote.
That schism is in play at the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, which is headed for a civil trial next month to determine whether it will remain within the mainstream Presbyterian organization or join the more conservative ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. By court order, the two factions now share the church at 148th Street and Antioch Road, worshipping at different times and areas of the building.
Nationwide, with many conservative Presbyterians who were active in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) denomination now gone, as well as the larger cultural shift toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, the decisive vote moved quickly toward approval, according to those on both sides of the divide.
Plenty of moderates and conservatives, however, have chosen to stay within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one of the nation’s historic mainline Protestant denominations, which has its headquarters in Louisville, Ky. Ministers who object will not be required to perform a same-sex marriage.
Paul Detterman, national director of The Fellowship Community, a group of conservatives who have stayed in the church, said: “Our objection to the passage of the marriage amendment is in no way, shape or form anti-gay. It is in no way intended as anything but concern that the church is capitulating to the culture and is misrepresenting the message of Scripture.”
He added, “We definitely will see another wave, a sizable wave, of conservative folks leaving,” but said he and others were staying because “this conversation is dreadfully important to be a part of.”
Other religious denominations that have officially decided to permit their clergy to perform same-sex marriages include the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Quakers, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Churches and, in Judaism, the Reform and Conservative movements. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America left it open for individual ministers to decide.
“I don’t see any further large mainline denominations making the same move,” said Alan Wisdom, a Presbyterian and the interim editor of Theology Matters, a journal for conservative Protestants.
The United Methodist Church, with about 5.5 million members, has been debating same-sex marriage for years, but it includes a growing membership in Africa, where there is little acceptance of gay relationships.
The Presbyterians’ decision on Tuesday will put an end to the ecclesiastical prosecutions and convictions in the last few decades of ministers who broke church law by conducting same-sex marriages.
“Some of us are calling it liberation day,” said the Rev. William Blake Spencer, pastor of Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., who is gay and voted with his presbytery on Tuesday. “It will be the last LGBTQ issue that we debate and fight about, and finally our welcome comes without a ‘but’ or an ‘if.’”
The Star’s Matt Campbell contributed to this report.