The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to keep its current definition of marriage "between a woman and a man" by narrowly defeating a proposal to change the wording to "between two people" at its 220th General Assembly Friday evening.
The proposal by same-sex marriage proponents would have also changed the definition of marriage from being a "civil contract" to a "covenant" that "according to the laws of the state also constitutes a civil contract."
Nearly four hours of debate preceded the 338-308 vote. While in prayer after the vote, General Assembly Moderator Neal Presa said, "Some of us weep while some of us rejoice. We are a divided church."
The PC(USA)'s Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee had voted 28-24 in favor of the change on Thursday.
Prior to the vote on Friday, Jodi Craiglow of the Miami Valley Presbytery in Ohio said, "I must affirm definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. As much as my heart breaks for your (gay Presbyterians') pain and frustration, I must simply hold to the standard of the God I love."
More Light Presbyterians, which is a group supportive of same-sex marriage, almost immediately responded to the vote on Friday with a statement on its website reflecting a bittersweet moment.
"While it is disappointing that the Church missed this historic opportunity to move toward full inclusion, the fact that so many Presbyterians from around the country called for the Church to recognize love between committed same-gender couples was awe-inspiring to see." said Michael J. Adee, executive director of More Light Presbyterians. "We have more work to do to show those who oppose full inclusion how truly wonderful the gifts that committed, married same-sex couples bring to our church. We're inspired by the progress we've made together and are just as committed to continuing this work, together."
Some presbyteries called for the restoration of the 1996 standard that required "fidelity in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness" for all clergy. Five other presbyteries sought an authoritative interpretation of the constitution that would allow pastors to officiate at wedding ceremonies in states where same-gender marriage is legal.
The proposals come a year after a majority of the presbyteries ratified a constitutional amendment proposed by the 2010 General Assembly to remove the 1996 standard and thus open the door to partnered gay clergy, a move that has resulted in the defection of at least 100 congregations from the denomination in recent years, according to the Presbyterian News Service.
The Rev. Heidi Peterson, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Mo., and co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, said: "As a Presbyterian minister, my job is to provide pastoral care to the real people I serve in my congregation and in my community. Today, our church missed an opportunity to not only take a bold step towards love, but to also clarify confusion that ministers across the country are facing as more and more states expand their recognition of marriage to include same-sex couples. While we didn't take this step forward today, I have faith that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will one day soon stand on the side of love."
Days after being elected as vice moderator of the General Assembly – the second highest elected position in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe resigned on Wednesday after realizing that her recent participation in a same-sex marriage was going to be disruptive.
"The amount of conversation in person and comments online indicate that my confirmation has obviously touched a nerve," she said in a speech to the Assembly. "The tension over all of this is real, and clearly the energy and passion about this issue runs deep – and isn't going away."
The PC(USA)'s biennial assembly in Pittsburgh, Pa., concludes Saturday.