The nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination voted on Tuesday evening to change their definition of marriage to “two people,” cementing the group’s formal embrace of same-sex marriage.
The move ended decades of debate and a voting process that began last June, when the Presbyterian Church (USA), or PC(USA), passed two overtures about same-sex marriage at their national gathering. The first, a so-called “Authoritative Interpretation,” immediately allowed pastors to begin marrying LGBT couples in areas where it was legal. But a second overture, which passed with 71 percent of the vote at the assembly, was more expansive, and set into motion a denomination-wide process of altering the group’s official understanding of marriage. The measure sought to replace a phrase in the church’s constitution that defined marriage as “a civil contract between a woman and a man” with a sentence reading “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.”
Since the measure altered official church language, it required approval from a simple majority of the group’s 171 “presbyteries,” or regional clusters of churches, a lengthy voting process that can take months. But on Tuesday, members of the Presbytery of the Palisades met in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, to cast the pivotal 86th vote. The delegates reportedly didn’t even take up paper ballots, ratifying the measure with a simple voice vote.
The PC(USA), which claims around 1.8 million members and 10,000 churches, has ordained LGBT people since 2011. But Alex McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians, one of the two main LGBT advocacy groups in the denomination, said the new marriage language allows bisexual, transgender, lesbian, and gay people to feel fully welcomed by their fellow worshippers.
“Today, we can bring our whole selves to church,” McNeill said in a press release.
A statement from the board of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, the other main pro-LGBT organization in the church, echoed McNeil.
“We rejoice that all couples can now see those relationships solemnized before God and the Christian community in marriage, at the discretion of ministers and sessions,” the statement read.
The new language doesn’t require Presbyterian ministers to officiate same-sex unions, and pastors can individually decline to perform a marriage — just as they can with any straight couple. In addition, although the vote has crossed the threshold for ratification, presbyteries will continue to vote until June, when it is expected to take effect. As of Wednesday morning, the tally stands at 87 presbyteries in favor, 41 against, and one tied.
McNeill noted that while the vote is a victory for equality in the church, there is still more work to be done to ensure that the church guarantees LGBT people equal rights — and theological standing — across the board.
“Ratification is not the end, it is the continuation of ongoing sacred conversations,” he said. “This is the next step in our long journey to minister to all of our people.”
Not all Presbyterians celebrated the vote, however. Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the conservative-leaning Presbyterian Lay Committee, lamented the change to the marriage language.
“In terms of the PCUSA’s witness to the world, this vote demonstrates a complete accommodation to the prevailing winds of our culture,” LaBerge said in statement posted on The Layman’s website. “Any prophetic voice that the denomination may have once had to speak truth and call people to repentance is now lost. All she can do now is echo the voices of the world for she has abandoned the clarion call to bear faithful witness to the God who has clearly spoken on this matter.”
LaBerge’s outrage is becoming less common among American people of faith, however. The PC(USA)’s vote puts it alongside a growing number of religious groups who are embracing LGBT rights on moral and theological grounds. Several major mainline Christian denominations — as well as Jewish groups and Unitarian Universalists — now ordain and marry LGBT people, and even conservative evangelical traditions are beginning to abandon anti-gay theologies: several evangelical leaders have called for their tradition to endorse same-sex marriage, and earlier this week, City Church, the largest evangelical church in San Francisco, abolished its requirement that LGBT members remain celibate.