The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has become the fourth Protestant denomination in the U.S. to allow the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.
It follows a majority vote by the 173 presbyteries (district governing bodies) on Tuesday to change the body’s constitution in order to allow openly gay people in same-sex relationships to be ordained as ministers, elders and deacons.
The move does away with 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 also ends 33 years of wrangling between supporters and opponents of the move and reverses the outcome of a key vote two years ago, when the majority of presbyteries blocked the proposal.
Last year, the PC(USA)'s highest legislative body voted to remove the ban against noncelibate homosexual clergy. It was the fourth time since 1997 that the General Assembly passed such a resolution. Previously, the measure was rejected each time by the denomination's presbyteries. A majority vote from the presbyteries is required to ratify the overture.
Over the past year, presbyteries have voted on whether to approve the amendment to the church constitution and this time round, 19 presbyteries that had previously voted against the move backed it, a possible consequence of the departure of conservative congregations in recent years. On Tuesday, the Twin Cities presbytery became the 87th presbytery and the deciding vote to give the green light.
“We’ve been having this conversation for 33 years, and some people are ready to get to the other side of this decision," PC(USA)'s stated clerk and highest elected official, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, was quoted by the New York Times as saying.
“Some people are going to celebrate this day because they’ve worked for it for a long time, and some people will mourn this day because they think it’s a totally different understanding of Scripture than they have.
“I hope that going forward we can stay together and be faithful witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University, said the move reflected changes in American culture.
“They’re making this change amid a larger cultural change. General public opinion on gay rights is trending pretty dramatically in the liberal direction,” he said.
The United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Episcopal Church already allow the ordination of openly gay candidates.
The ordination of the openly gay Gene Robinson in 2003 caused an irreversible fissure in The Episcopal Church, which led to the breakaway of orthodox members and the formation of a new body, the Anglican Church in North America. Though the global Anglican Communion, of which TEC is part of, bans openly gay clergy, TEC adopted a resolution in 2009 opening the ordination process to all baptized members, which would include practicing homosexuals.
Splits have also been occurring in the ELCA, which opened the door to partnered gay and lesbian clergy in 2009, and the PC(USA). Though the Presbyterian church body had not approved gay ordination until this year, many orthodox congregations were discontent with the liberal direction it was already moving in. According to the Presbyterian News Service, around 100 congregations out of 11,000 have already left the PC(USA) in the last five years, with the prospect that more may soon join them.
A conservative group in the denomination, Presbyterians for Renewal, said in a statement Tuesday that it was considering the possibility of forming new covenanted fellowships “within and perhaps beyond the PC(USA).”
These fellowships would be based on closer theological agreement and “support continued biblical faithfulness," it said.
“While the ongoing voting in remaining presbyteries is important, both as a means of faithful witness, and for the sake of understanding the state of our divisions, the biblical standard of fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman and chastity in singleness will soon be removed as an explicit denominational standard for ordination and/or installation of church officers,” the group said.
“We deeply grieve this unfaithful action, for it brings great harm to the life and witness of the PC(USA)," it continued. "We have prayed that our denomination would uphold this biblical standard, and we have worked to maintain it. But now a line has been crossed.
“The revision of our Book of Order signals a massive change in our covenantal life and a departure from the beliefs and practice of the historic and global church. We who are committed to holding fast the clear teaching of scripture must pray and work all the more to discern how to move forward with biblical faithfulness in and for a denomination that has lost its way.”
Another mainline Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church, is still debating the issue. The much smaller and more conservative Presbyterian Church in America prohibits the ordination of women and openly gay candidates.