Presbyterians Vote to Allow Same-Sex Marriages

DETROIT — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted at its General Assembly on Thursday to change its constitution’s definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people,” and to allow its ministers to perform same-sex marriages where it is legal.

Both measures, passed by large majorities, are a reversal for a church that in 1991 and in 2008 barred its pastors from performing same-sex marriages, and that has held ecclesiastical trials for ministers who violated the ban and blessed gay couples.

The Presbyterian Church, a historic mainline Protestant denomination that spans a broad spectrum from liberal to conservative evangelicals, has been mired in the debate over homosexuality for about three decades. The General Assembly’s decision in 2010 to ordain openly gay ministers caused many congregations, including some of the largest, to depart.

The convention hall fell silent as the vote counts were announced, in deference to a plea by the church’s moderator, leading the session, to be respectful of the divide.

“There were some of us with tears of joy, and some of us with tears of grief,” said the Rev. Susan De George, stated clerk of the Hudson River Presbytery, in New York, a lesbian minister who years ago was among those brought up on charges for blessing same-sex unions. “After the vote, the first thing I did was to text a friend on the other side of the issue.”

The Presbyterians follow other religious groups that have taken similar steps, including the United Church of Christ, which affirmed “equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender” in 2005; Quakers; the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations; and the Reform and Conservative movements in Judaism.

The vote giving discretion to ministers to marry gay couples takes effect on Sunday, at the close of the General Assembly.

But changing the definition of marriage in the church’s Book of Order would still require ratification by a majority of the church’s 172 regions, or presbyteries — a yearlong process. At the assembly in Detroit, the measure passed overwhelmingly — 71 percent to 29 percent — but only after an amendment that altered the language of the change from “two people” to “two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” a nod to conservatives who would otherwise have voted against it.

The votes delighted observers and participants at the assembly who have been pushing for gay equality, many draped in hand-knit rainbow-colored stoles.

Compared with previous General Assemblies, “this has felt completely different,” said Alex McNeill, a candidate for ordination and the executive director of More Light Presbyterians, a group advocating gay equality in the church. “There is such a sense of growth and mutual respect across the theological spectrum.”

But it deeply pained those Presbyterian commissioners in the church’s conservative wing, who warned that congregations that have been on the brink of departure would leave.

“My heart breaks,” the Rev. Steve Wilkins, representing the New Harmony Presbytery in South Carolina, said during the debate. “I don’t think it’s up to us to change the definition of marriage; in fact marriage has been defined by us and revealed to us in God’s word.”

About 350 of the denomination’s congregations have left since 2010, when the General Assembly voted to ordain openly gay clergy members, said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the church’s stated clerk, in an interview. But it is still the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination, with 10,038 churches in 2013 and about 1.8 million members.

On the measure to allow the clergy to perform same-sex marriages, the vote of the 565 commissioners was 61 percent in favor, and 39 percent opposed.

The Rev. Jeffrey Bridgeman, pastor of El Montecito Presbyterian Church, in California, served as the moderator of the 71-member committee that voted overwhelmingly to endorse both resolutions, even though, personally, he is opposed to same-sex marriage. He said in an interview before the vote that 10 of the 33 churches in his presbytery had left in the past two years, but that his quite conservative church was staying for now because “they feel they have a ministry.”

The assembly also passed a resolution to undertake a churchwide “reconciliation” effort to reach out to congregations that disagree with these decisions but want to remain in the denomination. But church leaders said they had no concrete plans yet for how the church could promote reconciliation in the next year while each presbytery must debate and vote whether to ratify changing the definition of marriage in the Book of Order.

Heath Rada, the newly elected moderator of the church, said at a news conference that he thought the measures passed because many Presbyterians were simply tired of having themselves and their church defined by the controversy over homosexuality.

“I think the fact that a decision has been made is viewed as a relief in many ways,” he said, “because we’re so much more than that issue.”