The Presbyterian General Assembly, meeting in Pittsburgh, voted 338-308 against changing how marriage was defined in the church constitution from a “civil contract between a woman and a man” to a “covenant between two people.” The assembly also rejected measures that would have affirmed a traditional definition of marriage or sought more theological study of the issue.
Other mainline Protestant churches have approved gay ordination or have permitted individual congregations to celebrate same-sex unions in recent years. The U.S. Episcopal Church, which is holding its national convention through next week in Indianapolis, will consider official prayers for blessing same-sex unions. However, only one major Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ, has endorsed same-sex marriage outright.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), like many Protestant groups, has debated for decades whether the Bible prohibits same-sex relationships. The discussion has focused mainly on whether to ordain gays and lesbians who aren’t celibate. But as gay acceptance has grown in the broader culture, marriage has become a larger part of the church discussion of homosexuality.
Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage and three more could do so this year, but 30 states have passed constitutional amendments limiting marriage to unions of a man and a woman. Throughout debate on the measure Friday, Presbyterian clergy from states where gay marriage is legal said they have been inundated with requests to officiate at same-sex weddings and were upset that they had to risk prosecution in church courts to preside at the ceremonies.
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The highest Presbyterian court found the Rev. Jane Spahr of San Francisco guilty of misconduct in 2010 for officiating at same-sex weddings when they were legal in California. According to the court’s rulings, clergy are allowed to bless same-sex unions but not to perform weddings. On Wednesday, the vice-moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly resigned after controversy over her recent decision to sign a marriage license for a same-sex couple.
Opponents of the new definition of marriage said it would violate the word of God, divide the Presbyterian Church and alienate the denomination from its many partner churches overseas. If the assembly had approved the redefinition, it would have required ratification from a majority of the church’s 173 presbyteries, or regional districts, a process that usually stretches for months.
“I must affirm definition of marriage as between one man and one woman,” said Jodi Craiglow, of the Miami Valley Presbytery in Ohio. She directly addressed gay Presbyterians. “As much as my heart breaks for your pain and frustration, I must simply hold to the standard of the God I love,” she said.
Michael Adee, executive director of the gay advocacy group More Light Presbyterians, called the outcome “a heartbreaking moment, a disappointing moment.” Several delegates and observers wept after the vote. “It’s a moment to grieve and it’s also a moment when we pick up and keep doing the work,” Adee said. “The conversation isn’t over.” In a trend occurring in many denominations, the Presbyterians have been losing members for decades. Last year, the denomination dropped just below 2 million members, and several theologically conservative churches have left to affiliate with like-minded denominations. In an unusual move, one liberal California congregation, the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, recently split off to join the United Church of Christ, saying Presbyterians have been too slow to support gays and lesbians.
The marriage vote came after another contentious discussion that split the assembly. Late Thursday, Presbyterians voted 333-331 with two abstentions to reject a plan to divest from three companies whose products are used by the Israeli government to maintain the occupation of Palestinian territories. Instead, Presbyterians adopted a measure calling for investment that contributes to peace in the region. On Friday morning, pro-Palestinian advocates tried unsuccessfully to revive the divestment proposal. Delegates did, however, approve a boycott of goods produced by settlements in the territories, including Ahava skin care company.