The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has expanded its definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. The recommendation for redefinition was introduced to the church General Assembly, or top legislative body last summer by those advocating for the change, said Greg Seckman, pastor at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Springettsbury Township.
The U.S.A. denomination’s 171 regional districts, or presbyteries, then needed approval from the majority. The critical 86th “yes” vote came Tuesday night from the Presbytery of the Palisades in New Jersey.
“So many families headed by LGBTQ couples have been waiting for decades to enter this space created for their families within their church communities,” said the Rev. Robin White, a leader of More Light Presbyterians, which advocates for gay acceptance.
The change will take effect June 21 after all regional bodies finish voting and the top Presbyterian leaders officially accept the results. The denomination has about 1.8 million members and about 10,000 congregations and is the largest Protestant group to authorize gay weddings churchwide.
“I’ve not been an advocate of the change, however I do believe in the freedom of conscience for individual pastors and churches to do what they feel best,” Seckman said. The good thing about this decision was that it wasn’t “winner take all,” he said. It just gave pastors and churches the ability to decide to participate or not.
Last year, Presbyterians allowed ministers to preside at gay weddings if local church leaders approved in the states where same-sex unions were legally recognized. The new wording for the church Book of Order extends that authorization to every congregation and reads, “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.”
The amendment includes a provision that no clergy would be compelled to preside at a gay marriage or host such a ceremony on church property. So far, 41 presbyteries have rejected the redefinition and the vote in one presbytery was tied, according to a tally by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which advocates for gays in the church and also works to keep Presbyterians united despite theological differences.
Steve Lytch, interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church of York said any same sex couples who ask to be married in their church will go through the same things heterosexual couples go through with meeting with the pastor to discern whether they’re ready for marriage. They “deal with people as people,” he said.
Between 2011, when the Presbyterians authorized gay ordination, and 2013, 428 of the denomination’s churches left for more conservative denominations or dissolved.
The decision is a shift for the church, said Seckman.
“I certainly can appreciate someone that has a differing view not being told what to do simply because they didn’t have enough votes,” he said.
Although several Protestant denominations have taken significant steps toward recognizing same-sex relationships, only one other major Christian group has endorsed gay marriage churchwide — The United Church of Christ.
Local congregations are now starting to talk about how the decision will affect them. Westminster Presbyterian Church of York’s leadership will be discussing what it means for them and what the future holds on Sunday, said Kristine Haileman, pastor at the church.