MINNEAPOLIS – Presbyterian leaders split Thursday on two gay-friendly measures, voting to allow non-celibate gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy but deciding not to redefine marriage in their church constitution to include same-sex couples – at least for now.
The surprise vote to shelve the marriage issue at the church’s general assembly in Minneapolis late Thursday passed by a slim margin of 51 percent. The decision means the church will continue to define marriage as being between “a man and a woman” for at least two more years – unless someone who voted to shelve the measure moves today to reconsider it and supporters muster enough votes to approve another debate.
Earlier Thursday, 53 percent of delegates approved the more liberal policy on gay clergy.
But even that vote isn’t a final stamp of approval for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or its more than 2 million members.
Such changes must be approved by a majority of the church’s 173 U.S. presbyteries before they can take effect. Two years ago, the assembly voted to liberalize the gay clergy policy – but it died last year when 94 of the presbyteries voted against it.
Even conservative Presbyterians were surprised by the fate of the marriage measure.
“I didn’t see this turn of events coming,” said Jerry Andrews, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in San Diego.
Had the assembly endorsed the redefinition of marriage, the two measures together could have made Presbyterians among the most gay-friendly major Christian denominations in the U.S.
The Rev. Ray Bagnuolo, the openly gay pastor of Janhus Presbyterian Church in New York City, was disappointed by the day’s outcome.
“At least we went forward on gay clergy,” Bagnuolo said. “It’s a very Presbyterian outcome – we got one thing, but not the other.”
Under current church policy, Presbyterians are only eligible to become clergy, deacons or elders if they are married or celibate. The new policy would strike references to sexuality altogether in favor of candidates committed to “joyful submission to worship of Christ.”