The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has approved a new definition of marriage that includes gay marriage.
The denomination is now the largest Protestant group in the U.S. to recognize same-sex marriage as Christian and allow same-sex weddings churchwide.
The new definition was endorsed last year by the denomination's top legislative body as an amendment to the church constitution. The change required approval from the majority of regional bodies, or presbyteries. The Covenant Network of Presbyterians says the critical vote came Tuesday from the Palisades Presbytery in New Jersey.
After all regional bodies vote and top Presbyterian leaders officially accept the results, the change will take effect on June 21. The denomination has nearly 1.8 million members and about 10,000 congregations.
The Rev. Robin White, a leader of More Light Presbyterians, which advocates for gay acceptance within the church, said many families headed by same-sex couples "have been waiting for decades to enter this space created for their families within their church communities."
So far, 41 presbyteries have rejected the redefinition, which includes a provision that no clergy would be compelled against their wishes to preside at a same-sex marriage or host such a ceremony on church property. The vote in one presbytery was tied, according to a tally by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a pro-gay group that works to keep Presbyterians united despite theological differences.
Last year the church allowed ministers to preside at gay weddings if local church leaders approved in states where the unions were legally recognized. The new wording for the church Book of Order, which authorizes same-sex marriages churchwide, will read, "Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives."
Church leaders released statements Tuesday urging "mutual forbearance" amid disagreements over the amendment. "We hope that such up/down voting does not mark the end but the continuation of our desire to live in community," the two top General Assembly officials said.
From 2011, when the Presbyterian church authorized gay ordination, to 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, 428 of the denomination's churches left for more conservative denominations or dissolved, though some theological conservatives have remained as they decide how to move forward.
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, said the new definition was "an express repudiation of the Bible" and approved "what God does not bless." His group has urged Presbyterians to protest by redirecting donations away from the national church until the original marriage definition is restored.
Paul Detterman, the national director of the Fellowship Community, a network of theologically conservative Presbyterian churches that have stayed with the denomination, said his organization will "remain faithfully engaged in conversation" with those of different views in the church. He said the network's opposition to the amendment is "in no way intended to be anti-gay" but aims "with humility" to uphold the traditional view of marriage.
Although several U.S. Protestant denominations have taken significant steps toward recognizing same-sex relationships, only one other major Christian group has endorsed gay marriage as Christian churchwide.
In 2005 the 1.1 million-member United Church of Christ became the first major Protestant denomination to back same-sex marriage, urging its individual congregations to develop marriage policies "that do not discriminate against couples based on gender."
The Episcopal Church, which in 2003 elected the first openly gay Anglican bishop, Gene Robinson, does not have a formal position on gay marriage but allows bishops to decide whether their priests may officiate at the ceremonies. Episcopalians will take up same-sex marriage at a national meeting in June.
The United Methodist Church, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., bars "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from ordination and prohibits gay marriage. Many Methodist clergy have been performing same-sex weddings as a protest of church policy.
The Associated Press