A debate that has raged within the Presbyterian Church for more than three decades culminated Tuesday with ratification of a measure allowing the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers and lay leaders, while giving regional church bodies the ability to decide for themselves.
With the vote of its regional organization in Minnesota, the Presbyterian Church USA became the fourth mainline Protestant church to allow gay ordination, following the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches and the United Church of Christ. The Minnesota vote was closely followed by one in Los Angeles.
"This is an important moment in the Christian communion," said Michael Adee, a Presbyterian elder who heads an organization that fought for gay ordination. "I rejoice that Presbyterians are focusing on what matters most: faith and character, not a person's marital status or sexual orientation."
The change to the Presbyterian Church constitution was approved last summer by the church's General Assembly, its governing body. But under church rules, such changes must then be ratified by a majority of the 173 regional organizations known as presbyteries.
Late Tuesday, at a meeting in St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb, the Twin Cities Presbytery put the measure over the top with a vote of 205 to 56, becoming the 87th regional body to vote yes. About 90 minutes later, the Pacific Presbytery, representing parts of Southern California and all of Hawaii, added its voice, voting 102 to 60 in favor.
It was the fourth time the church had voted on issues related to gay ordination, and the votes reflect a shift in attitudes within the church, and within American society, as public attitudes against homosexuality have softened. Since the last time the matter was brought to a vote, in 2008-09, some 19 presbyteries have switched their votes from "no" to "yes," including some in relatively conservative parts of the country, such as central Nebraska and northern Alabama.
Linda Fleming, an elder and deacon at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ladera Heights, which hosted the Pacific Presbytery meeting, said she was among those who had changed her mind on the issue in recent years.
"I finally decided at the age of 63 that it is inevitable," she said. "I think it's like letting black people come to white churches, or letting women become ministers. It's inevitable."
Still, she couldn't help but express surprise. "For the Presbyterian Church, which is a mainline church, a graying church, it's something."
Those voting at the gathering at Knox greeted the results of the vote with restraint. There was no cheering, no hugs — at least not immediately — and no recriminations from those who lost.
"We can move on," said Brian Symonds, 29, who is hoping to become the first openly gay person ordained by the Pacific Presbytery. "Now the work begins to move forward to what I've been called to do."
The amendment ratified Tuesday changes language in the Presbyterian constitution regarding the "gifts and requirements" of those ordained, whether as clergy or in the lay positions of elder and deacon. Since 1997, the constitution has required those seeking ordination to be living "in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." Now, it will simply require church officials to examine "each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office."
That gives enough leeway that even the amendment's advocates say it is likely to mean that more-conservative presbyteries will continue to deny ordination to gays and lesbians.
In recent years, some presbyteries have ordained gay and lesbian clergy and lay leaders under what some have described as an unofficial "don't ask, don't tell policy."
People on both sides of the issue predicted that the ratification of the amendment would lead some churches to leave the denomination and others to seek more compatible presbyteries. Already, several have requested reassignment to different regions.
The Rev. Dan Chun, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu, said his church has formally petitioned to move from the Pacific Presbytery, which favors gay ordination, to the San Diego Presbytery, which does not. There are other reasons, he said, including the large military populations in both places, but gay ordination was a major factor.
He said he feared the vote would be "divisive for our denomination, which has, for the past 50-plus years, been losing membership."
The Rev. Mark Brewer, pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian and another opponent of gay ordination, said he didn't think the vote would cause any immediate crisis in the church. "I think this is a tectonic plate slowly separating, more than a big earthquake," he said.
Ideally, he added, Presbyterians will find a way to get along, in the way that the Anglican Communion has largely, if not entirely, held together. The communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch, is also sharply divided on the same issue.
"I think that's probably where the Presbyterians will end up," he said. "Stay on the same ship; just live on different decks."