The governing bodies of two of the largest mainline Protestant denominations in the country — the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church — recently issued decisions that reflect the swiftly shifting landscape on same-sex marriage, gay rights and the white mainline Protestant community. The debates were driven not only by the need for clarity in internal church matters such as ordination, but also by the need to provide guidance to clergy who serve congregants in the growing number of states where gay and lesbian couples are allowed to marry legally.
At its biannual conference, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) debated for more than three hours before narrowly rejecting a bid to modify the definition of marriage in the church constitution as “a covenant between two people.” As a result, Presbyterian clergy who officiate at gay weddings, even in states that allow gay couples to marry, continue to risk censure by the denomination. The composition of the vote, however, illustrated sharp generational divides that signal an impending shift away from an exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage. The overall vote was 338 to 308, with two abstentions. But notably, seminary students and young adult delegates (whose votes were strictly advisory) voted overwhelmingly in favor of modifying the definition of marriage to afford local pastors the option of including gay and lesbian couples (82 percent and 75 percent support respectively).
Meanwhile, at the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention, the church’s House of Deputies voted to change the church’s “nondiscrimination canons” to include “gender identity and expression,” a move that forbids discrimination against candidates for the priesthood who are transgender. The next day, the same body voted to approve a new liturgy for blessing same-sex unions, which the Episcopal Church already allows at the discretion of local priests.
The Presbyterian Church’s narrow vote, and the Episcopal Church’s two shifts in policy, herald a wider change among white mainline Protestants, who are increasingly in favor of expanded rights for gay and lesbian people, including same-sex marriage. Recent PRRI polling reveals that a majority (51 percent)
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