The Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest body of Presbyterians in the country, approved a change in the wording of its constitution to allow gay and lesbian weddings within the church, a move that threatens to continue to split the mainline Protestant denomination.

The 171 regional presbyteries (local leadership bodies within the PCUSA) have been voting on whether to change the wording to call marriage a contract “between a woman and a man” to being “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” On Tuesday, the denomination reached its needed majority of “yes” votes from at least 86 presbyteries to take effect. The change will be included in the church’s “Book of Order,” part of its constitution, taking effect on June 21.

The church, which has more than 1.7 million members, voted last June to allow clergy to perform same-sex weddings. That vote gave clergy the choice of whether to preside over same-sex marriages in states where they are legal, an action which is now allowed in 36 state and the District of Columbia. Clergy will not be compelled to perform same-sex marriage.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has approved a change in the wording of its constitution to include same-sex marriage, a move which threatens to further splinter one of the largest U.S. mainline Protestant denominations. (Reuters)

Tuesday’s vote carries significance, writes Leslie Scanlon for The Presbyterian Outlook, because it will be much more difficult to reverse.

“Changing the constitutional language regarding the definition of Christian marriage would take the approval both of an assembly and a majority vote by the presbyteries,” Scanlon writes. “It also matters to many Presbyterians that their denomination is willing to put language affirming marriage equality directly in the denomination’s constitution.”

The vote comes amid a larger debate over whether gay marriage conflicts with Scripture and would cause more Presbyterian churches to break relations with the PCUSA. The church has lost 37 percent of its membership since 1992. Most of the congregations that depart opt to affiliate with either the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) or a newer body called A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO for short). The formality of Tuesday’s decision could accelerate more departures.

Like other mainline denominations, the PCUSA has grappled with the issue as gay marriage has become legal in more states. In 2012, the church’s General Assembly narrowly voted to reject a proposal to redefine marriage as a union between “two people.” Many of the congregations that rejected the move in 2012 have since left the denomination.

The nation’s largest denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and most evangelical churches, recognize marriage only as between a man and a woman. The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ allow same-sex marriage. The debate has roiled the United Methodist Church, another mainline denomination. Property disputes and litigation that have occupied the Episcopal Church in the past decade are now taking place among some Presbyterian churches.

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Presbyterian Church (USA) changes its constitution to include gay marriage

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