DETROIT — Ministers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can preside at same-sex marriages in states where they are legal, thanks to a Thursday vote by the denomination’s top legislative body.
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 it 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 make such a change in defining marriage in its official governing documents, although smaller denominations have done so and others allow local options 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 last half-century over homosexuality but which in recent years has followed the trajectory of broader public opinion in favor of affirming gays and lesbians 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 [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] and to offer them a church home where they can be,” he said.
Thursday’s decisions also came with plenty of anxious words about the looming possibility that more conservatives will join an exodus of an estimated 350 congregations that have left for more conservative denominations in response to liberal shifts in recent years on sexuality and theology in the Presbyterian Church.
In 2011, the denomination ratified a constitutional change authorizing the ordination of gays and lesbians in noncelibate 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 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 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 approved a floor amendment to say those two people have been understood to be “traditionally between a man and a woman.”
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