(RNS) The governing body of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) decided Thursday (June 19) to allow gay weddings within the church, making it among the largest Christian denominations to take an embracing step toward same-sex marriage.
By a 76-24 percent vote, the General Assembly of the 1.8 million-member PCUSA voted to allow pastors to perform gay marriages wherever they are legal. The Assembly has yet to vote on changing language about marriage in the church’s Book of Order which would alter references to “a man and woman” to “two persons.” That vote is expected late Thursday afternoon.
If the Assembly, meeting in Detroit this week, makes such a change, it would not become church law unless a majority of the 172 presbyteries (regional governing bodies) also approve amending the Book of Order.
Gay rights activists within the church rejoiced at their lopsided victory.
“This vote is an answer to many prayers for the Church to recognize love between committed same-sex couples,” said Alex McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians, a group which has led the fight for gay marriage within the church.
The vote came after an emotional debate but polite debate in which opponents of the motion said it conflicted with Scripture, and would cause Presbyterian churches abroad to break relations with the PCUSA.
Under the new rule, pastors who do not want to preside over gay weddings are not obligated to, and it applies only in parts of the nation where gay marriage is legal: 19 states and the District of Columbia.
The church has long grappled with the issue, which came to a head at the last General Assembly in 2012, when a similar resolution allowing for gay marriage lost 338-308. Since then, the church’s decades-long decline in membership has continued. It lost about 5 percent of its membership in both 2012 and 2013, in part because conservative-leaning congregations defected over what they lamented as the church’s embrace of more liberal values.
But some who voted in favor of the gay marriage resolution said they hoped it would draw people to the church. “I fear that our church brand is in jeopardy,” said public relations professional Margaret Blankers to the General Assembly. “Some question the relevance of church they see is not living up to its reputation for fairness. Do we really want to be known for not accepting and embracing our LGBT brothers and sisters?”
Those defections — many to smaller and more conservative Presbyterian denominations — made it more likely that the General Assembly would approve a gay marriage resolution this year.
The General Assembly’s vote reflects change in the nation, where in rapid succession during the past year, judges have struck down laws prohibiting same-gender marriage. And a steady stream of opinion polls show Americans’ approval of gay marriage has risen dramatically in the past few years, to around 55 percent today.
But even against this backdrop, the General Assembly’s vote stands out, in that it has accepted evolving American laws and attitudes toward gay marriage that most other Christian denominations have rejected.
The Roman Catholic, Baptist, Southern Baptist, Mormon, Methodist and most Lutheran and evangelical churches recognize marriage only as between a man and a woman, though many within the Methodist Church advocate for gay marriage. The Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ are two of the larger U.S. churches where gay marriages may be performed.
This news is a victory for decent-minded folks, as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has voted to allow its clergy to perform same-sex marriages. Theological conservatives within the denomination, however, are likely not happy about this news.