DETROIT — Ministers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can preside at same-sex marriages in states where the marriages are legal, following a vote Thursday afternoon at the denomination’s top legislative body.
And in the coming year, the denomination’s regional presbyteries will vote on an even more sweeping proposal endorsed by the General Assembly that would change the church‘s definition of Christian marriage churchwide, defining marriage as involving two people, regardless of gender.
That change — which would require approval from a majority of the 172 presbyteries — would make the denomination the largest American religious body to approve such a change in defining marriage in its official governing documents, although smaller denominations have done so and others allow local option on blessing same-sex relationships.
Strong applause broke out after the overwhelming votes, which came amid debate of more than two hours at the Detroit Cobo Center. The lopsided margins contrast with what had been close divisions during most of the past half-century over homosexuality but which in recent years has followed the trajectory of broader public opinion in favor of affirming gays and lesbians both at the altar and in the pulpit.
The votes were “historic,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk, or top ecclesiastical officer, of the denomination. They resulted from “concerns to reach out to people who are LGBT and to offer them a church home where they can be,” he said.
But Thursday’s decisions also came with anxious words about the possibility that more conservatives will join an exodus of an estimated 350 congregations that have left for more conservative denominations, including many in Western Pennsylvania, in response to liberal shifts in recent years on sexuality and theology in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In 2011, the denomination ratified a constitutional change authorizing the ordination of gays and lesbians in non-celibate relationships.
The General Assembly on Thursday voted 371-238 in favor of an official “authoritative interpretation” of its constitution, which honors the freedom of conscience of any pastor who chooses to preside at a legal same-sex wedding and of any church that chooses to host one. It supersedes previous case law from the denomination’s top court, which said Presbyterian pastors could bless same-sex relationships but not portray them as marriages.
The new measure applies only in the fast-growing number of jurisdictions — now in 19 states, including Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia — where gay marriage has been legalized by legislation or court order.
The Rev. Randy Bush, pastor of East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, said he has received several requests for same-sex weddings since they became legal in Pennsylvania last month and would avail himself of the opportunity to do so now with his denomination‘s permission.
The measure takes effect Saturday upon conclusion of the assembly. The authoritative interpretation says that a minister’s “discernment of the leading of the Holy Spirit is indispensable” and ministers have the freedom of conscience to discern whether to solemnize any legal marriage.
Separately, the assembly also voted 429-175 to recommend changing the church’s constitutional definition of marriage from a covenant between “a man and a woman” to that of a “unique commitment between two people.”
The assembly did approve a floor amendment to say those two people have been understood to be “traditionally between a man and a woman.”
That phrasing received overwhelming support, including from the Rev. Janet Edwards of Pittsburgh, who long has advocated for same-sex marriage and was acquitted in a church trial in 2008 for presiding at such a ceremony.
“The fact is our Presbyterian Christian family and our culture have seen marriage traditionally between a man and a woman. It is also a fact that God has opened our eyes to see what has been there all along,” she said. “... The whole overture also includes the many in the Presbyterian Church who see two men and two women showing all the qualities of love and commitment we recognize as marriage.”
The Rev. Paul Roberts of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, long active in conservative causes in the church, said the amendment would allow the use of more traditional language for those opposed to the change. But he asked the assembly for prayer for pastors and churches “trying to discern God’s will about do we and will we still feel a part of this denomination.”
The church has 1.76 million members and is particularly concentrated in Western Pennsylvania. The denomination has lost about 10 percent of its members in the past two years, driven in large part to the exiting congregations.
The assembly overwhelmingly approved a motion directing the top leadership of the Louisville, Ky.-based denomination to “establish a way to bring reconciliation to the church that would involve visiting each presbytery.” Rev. Parsons said that while he couldn‘t immediately estimate the travel cost of such an effort, “the cost of not doing this is higher.”
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published June 19, 2014 12:00 AM