Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) overturned a long-standing ban on the ordination of gays and lesbians Friday, providing yet the latest example of a religious denomination struggling with how, and whether, to incorporate homosexuality into church life.
At the same time, the church's national governing body, meeting in San Jose, refused to alter its definition of marriage, calling it a "covenant between a woman and a man." The actions by the General Assembly came the week after same-sex marriage became legal in California. They also follow the decision of a gathering of Methodists from Southern California and Hawaii, who went against their national church by voting to support same-sex couples who marry and the pastors who welcome them.
The Presbyterian Church is among many mainline Protestant denominations struggling to reconcile conflicting beliefs about biblical authority and the role of gays.
Some parishes have left the Episcopal Church, prompting predictions that the issue may tear the denomination apart. In the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- the nation's largest Presbyterian group, with 2.3 million members -- Friday's actions were likely to deepen theological fissures.
The General Assembly voted in favor of the ordination measure 54% to 46%, but its decision must still be approved by a majority of the nation's 173 regional presbyteries over the next year. Several prominent church leaders predicted it would fail.
Even so, gay rights advocates applauded the Presbyterians' decision to amend their constitution, saying the step would end discrimination that has long kept gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people from church service.
"I feel proud of my church today," said Lisa Larges, national coordinator for That All May Freely Serve, an organization that advocates for gay equality in the Presbyterian church.
Larges, who lives in San Francisco and attended seminary there, has fought unsuccessfully for more than two decades to become a Presbyterian minister.
"I think a generational shift is what we are witnessing," she said Friday. "There is a whole generation coming of age for whom acceptance is a given. The church is beginning to experience that sea change."
But opponents called the amendment a perilous act that defies Christian teaching and threatens to drive away members.
"Already, many of our strongest churches, including mine, are losing members who are disgusted with a political operation that is not Christ-oriented or Scripture-oriented," said the Rev. John Huffman of the 3,100-member St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach.
The measure approved Friday was sponsored by the Presbytery of Boston. It deletes language, approved by the General Assembly in 1996, that requires church elders, deacons and ministers to "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."
Those wishing to serve the church would instead pledge to "live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the head of the church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions."
The measure also voids previous church rulings that had prohibited the ordination of homosexuals, action that does not require approval of the regional bodies.
Two previous attempts by the General Assembly to overturn or soften the ban on homosexual clergy -- in 1997 and 2001 -- both failed to win majority support among the 173 presbyteries.
Some Presbyterians predicted more defections from the national church.
"I suspect churches will leave because of this General Assembly," said the Rev. Jerry Andrews, who presides over a large Presbyterian congregation in suburban Chicago and is co-moderator of the Presbyterian Coalition, a gathering of evangelical individuals, churches and organizations within the national church. "They will cite the actions of this General Assembly as the straw that broke the camel's back."
The church's chief ecclesiastical leader, or stated clerk of the General Assembly, reported Friday that the denomination has lost 20 to 30 churches this year, partly because of conflict over ordination, marriage and other issues that challenge biblical teaching.
The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the stated clerk,, said the losses have been "very painful," but he added that they did not represent a "major mass movement" in a denomination that has 11,000 churches.
"It is a huge tension," Kirkpatrick said of the debate over ordination. "It is a real challenge for the church and a challenge for mainline churches more generally."
The United Methodist Church is grappling with similar tensions. National church leaders reaffirmed a prohibition this spring against ordaining practicing homosexuals and a ban on "homosexual unions."
But the California-Pacific Annual Conference, which represents 82,000 Methodists in Southern California, Hawaii, Guam and Saipan, passed its resolution supporting gay and lesbian couples who marry. The conference also opposed the November ballot initiative in California that would ban such marriages.
"We wanted to communicate to the lesbian, gay and bisexual community in our conference that not all Methodists are of a common mind," said the Rev. Frank Wulf of the United University Church, a congregation on the USC campus that also serves Presbyterians. "We want to affirm same-sex couples who choose to marry and some of our pastors who choose knowing that it is in violation of United Methodist Church law to participate in those marriages."