Presbyterian leaders voted Thursday to allow non-celibate gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy, approving the first of two policy changes that could make their church one of the most gay-friendly major Christian denominations in the U.S.
But the vote isn't a final stamp of approval for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or its more than 2 million members.
Delegates voted during the church's general assembly in Minneapolis, with 53 percent approving the more liberal policy on gay clergy. A separate vote is expected later Thursday on whether to change the church's definition of marriage from between "a man and a woman" to between "two people."
Under current church policy, Presbyterians are only eligible to become clergy, deacons or elders if they are married or celibate. The new policy would strike references to sexuality altogether in favor of candidates committed to "joyful submission to worship of Christ."
But such changes must be approved by a majority of the church's 173 U.S. presbyteries. The assembly voted two years ago to liberalize the gay clergy policy, but it died last year when 94 of the presbyteries voted against it.
Still, the proposed changes "have the potential to be historic," said Cindy Bolbach, an elder at National Capital Presbytery in Washington and the assembly's elected moderator.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is ranked the 10th-largest church in the U.S. with 2.8 million members, according to the National Council of Churches' 2010 "Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches." But its own media materials tout 2.1 million members.
Earlier this week, both proposals were approved by assembly committees. The gay clergy change passed 36-16, and the definition of marriage cleared on a vote of 34-18.
"There are still big steps ahead, but I'm feeling better about this than I ever have before," the Rev. Ray Bagnuolo, the openly gay pastor of Janhus Presbyterian Church in New York City, said ahead of the clergy vote.
Some conservative-minded Presbyterians have tried to rally opposition to the changes.
"Blurring or obscuring the clear teaching of God's Word in order to keep in step with secular laws and changing personal morals only confuses our witness and causes innumerable problems for the future," Presbyterians for Renewal, a group opposed to the changes, wrote on its website.
Messages seeking comment from leaders of Presbyterians for Renewal and Presbyterian Coalition, another conservative group in the church, weren't returned Thursday.
"Our church is divided and actions we take today at general assembly can split it even further," Donna Rivett, an elder at the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, said during assembly debate on the gay clergy policy.
A number of major Christian denominations have voted in recent years to allow non-celibate gays to serve as clergy if they are in committed relationships. Among them are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the U.S. Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ.
"For the Presbyterian Church to stay current and enter the next generation, they really need to let go of this debate," said the Rev. Cindi Love, executive director of SoulForce, a gay Christian group.
Love said she also believed that if the Presbyterians approve the redefinition of marriage, the church would become the largest U.S. Christian denomination to recognize marriage between same-sex couples.
A separate measure, which would also require regional ratification, would remove the threat of punishment for clergy who perform same-sex marriages in states that allow it.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)