During their national meeting in Detroit Thursday, June 20, the governing body of the Presbyterian Church USA voted to recognize same-sex marriage. The amendment was approved by large margins and included language stating that marriage can be the union of two individuals, and not just between a man and a woman. The vote still requires approval from the 172 regional presbyteries, they will vote on the change during the next year, according to the Detroit Free Press.
The measure was passed by the delegates 429 to 175. Conservatives are concerned the move could lead to further membership declines. Since 1992 the Presbyterian Church USA has lost more than a million followers. Membership has declined 37 percent from 2.78 million to 1.76 million. The Congregations that oppose gay marriage have broken away and the fear is more will leave after Thursday’s vote.
In another policy change, delegates also voted to allow ministers to preside at gay weddings in states where the unions are already legal and the local congregational leaders approve. Currently 19 states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage. In 2011 the denomination voted to eliminate barriers for ordaining clergy with same-sex partners. Those ministers were not allowed to preform gay marriages at that time, however.
The text in the Book of Order states, “Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, so long as it is approved by the session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian worship. In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.”
New York Presbytery Rev. Krystin Granberg spoke of receiving requests from parishioners asking her to preside at their weddings. While speaking at the debate she said, “They want to be married in the church they love and they want me to do it. I want pastoral relief.”
Arizona and New Mexico representative of the Presbytery de Cristo, Bill Norton, urged the assembly to delay the changes stating, “We are laying hands on something that is holy, that God has given us, so we need to be sure any changes we make are in accord with God’s will revealed in Scripture.” The conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee described the votes in Detroit as an abomination. Their released statement reads, “The General Assembly has committed an express repudiation of the Bible, the mutually agreed upon Confessions of the PCUSA, thousands of years of faithfulness to God’s clear commands and the denominational ordination vows of each concurring commissioner.”
In 2011 the “gay ordination vote” caused 428 of the denomination’s 10,000 churches to leave for more conservative denominations. Some have even dissolved completely. A few of the denominations theological conservatives have remained to have a say in deciding how to move forward. The church currently has about 1.8 million members.
Of the mainline Protestant denominations, only the United Church of Christ supports gay marriage. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America eliminated barriers for gay clergy but does allow local church officials to decide their own policies on ordination and blessings for same-sex couples. The Episcopal Church has an approved prayer service for same-sex unions. The largest mainline Protestant group, the United Methodist Church, bars the ordination of people in same-sex relationships. Some UMC members are debating whether to split from the Church over their different views of the Bible and marriage.
The Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, chief executive of PC USA, noted, “Both the church and the society have changed. More people are getting to know gays and lesbians, laws are changing and pastoral situations are changing.” Presbyterians from Africa, Arab countries and other areas where people do not approve of homosexuality are expressing their concerns for the Church’s direction. Conversations about sexuality began in 1978 at that time there was a church declaration that “homosexuality does not accord with God’s plan for humanity.”