A split decision from Presbyterian leaders on two gay-friendly measures guarantees even more debate among the U.S. church's members on an issue they've been divided over for years.
Delegates to the Presbyterian church's convention in Minneapolis voted Thursday for a more liberal policy on gay clergy but decided not to redefine marriage in their church constitution to include same-sex couples. Approval of both measures could have made the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) one of the most gay-friendly major Christian churches in the U.S.
Even the more liberal stance on gay clergy faces more debate before it can become church policy. A majority of the church's 173 U.S. presbyteries must approve it. Two years ago - after years of efforts by supporters - a similar measure was sent out to presbyteries but died when 94 of them voted against it.
Both of Thursday's votes were close. Fifty-one percent of delegates voted to shelve the proposal to redefine marriage as being between "two people" instead of between "a man and a woman," just hours after 53 percent of them voted to allow non-celibate gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy.
There is a slight possibility the delegates could take up the marriage proposal again Friday - if someone who voted to hold off on the matter moves to reconsider it, and supporters muster enough votes to approve another debate.
Shelving the marriage matter means church committees will spend the next two years reviewing the issue.
"We Presbyterians love to study, which is not a bad thing," said Cindy Bolbach, an elder at National Capital Presbytery in Washington and the assembly's elected moderator. "We're talking about some major new steps."
But supporters say Presbyterians have spent enough time mulling it over.
"I think we're seeing acts of desperation by those who feel their way of life is slipping away," the Rev. Ray Bagnuolo, the openly gay pastor of Janhus Presbyterian Church in New York City, said after the marriage vote. "Progress takes time. But to gay and lesbian people, it says their relationships, who they are, does not matter to this church. I don't call that Christian or loving."
Even some conservative Presbyterians were surprised by the fate of the marriage measure.
"I didn't see this turn of events coming," said Jerry Andrews, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in San Diego.
He said redefining marriage may have been one step too far for delegates who just hours earlier voted for the more liberal clergy policy.
"I think as the day went on, the mood became more conservative," Andrews said.
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." The church's media materials tout 2.1 million members.
Under current church policy, Presbyterians are eligible to become clergy, deacons or elders only 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."
Several 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.
Fewer major U.S. denominations have taken the step of fully endorsing gay marriage. Only two, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, have explicitly allowed it.
Delegates at the Presbyterian assembly also shelved a separate measure that would have removed the threat of punishment for clergy who perform same-sex marriages in states where it's legal.
Online: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
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