The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has officially cleared the way for openly gay men and women in same-sex relationships to be ordained as clergy.
The new policy goes into effect today after the church's assembly and 97 of the denomination's 173 presbyteries approved the change within the church’s constitution. The move represents a major change in the history of the 2.8 million-member Presbyterian denomination.
“The new policy for the Presbyterian Church becomes official on Sunday and a number of churches will mark the moment with prayer and rejoicing in their Sunday services,” according to a press release from the members of the More Light Presbyterians.
During the past several years, the debate has rambled on with a majority of church members previously rejecting changes that would allow noncelibate gays and lesbians to be ordained.
More than 100 of the 11,000 Presbyterian churches in the United States have already left the denomination over the issue.
"We are entering a new era of equality," Michael Adee, the executive director of More Light Presbyterians, a Minnesota-based church group, said a statement to the media. “Across this country members of welcoming and affirming congregations and ministries are telling the stories of faithful candidates who can now be considered for ordination."
He said he knew of several "closeted gay clergy who are planning on coming out" because of the new rules.
Adee also said the historic moment “returns us to ordination standards that focus on faith and character rather than one's marital status or sexual orientation."
The new policy will change the actual language in the church constitution, which actually banned homosexuals from serving as church ministers, elders and deacons. Presbyteries voted to delete the constitutional requirement for clergy to live “in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”
“It allows each presbytery, or regional governing body, to decide what sexual standards to place on ordination,” according to the church's official press release.
But despite the church’s move this week, there are plenty of those who oppose the measure within the Presbyterian community.
Andrew Quinn, a local Presbyterian church member in Mobile, Ala., said the news is spreading like wildfire among Presbyterians and the church membership across the nation.
“This is not only against God’s will for our lives, it is a slap in the face of religion in general,” Quinn said.
“There are many of us who do not agree with this vote and will probably leave the church. It saddens me that we have allowed the secular wishes of the world to enter the walls of the churches around the nation.”
Disagreements like Quinn's argument about homosexuals and gay clergy have led to contention within other denominations while others remain staunchly opposed to the idea.
The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest of the Baptist denominations and the largest Protestant group in America, has considered same-gender sexual behavior to be sinful, stating that its members "affirm God's plan for marriage and sexual intimacy as one man, and one woman.”
Baptists in general firmly believe that homosexuality is not a valid lifestyle and that is an outright sin.
“The Bible condemns it as sin. It is not, however, an unforgivable sin. The same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals. They, too, may become new creations in Christ,” according to the church’s bylaws.
Members of the United Methodist Church have also struggled with the issue of gay church leadership.
Since 1972, the Book of Discipline within the UMC faith declares "homosexual practice" to be "incompatible with Christian teaching” – which has continuously been challenged in the denomination.
Presbyterians as a whole remain divided on the issue although gay and lesbian members are allowed to worship within the walls of the church.
The Presbyterian Church is the not the only Protestant denomination that has lifted the ban against gay clergy.
Others denominations include The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
"In passing this policy our denomination removed all sexual behavior standards from its constitution," the Rev. Parker T. Williamson, editor emeritus of the conservative publication The Layman, which actively opposed the change in the PC(USA), said in a statement this week.
"Scripture is very clear that there are standards relating to our sexual behavior but this denomination has decided it doesn't have any standards."
Below is the text of the new amendment according the Presbyterian constitution changes in the "Book of Order."
"New amendment to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates."
The amendment in to Presbyterian Church Book of Order read like this prior to the vote:
"Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament."