Gay Couples Can Get Married in Presbyterian Churches Now

A historic vote by one of America's largest mainline denominations shows that as the laws change, faith is changing, too.

On Thursday, the Presbyterian Church of the USA voted to allow its pastors to perform gay marriages in their congregations. As soon as Sunday, in states where it's legal, Presbyterian men and women will be able to officially say their vows in church and in city hall.

America's laws on gay marriage are changing rapidly, mostly led by judges. But this vote reveals something deeper: The people—and their faith—are changing, too.

There are more than 1.7 million Presbyterians in the United States, making it one of the largest mainline Protestant denominations in the country. Previously, the church allowed pastors to bless same-sex unions; several other Protestant denominations, including Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church, already permit their pastors to perform gay marriage ceremonies.

Thursday's vote makes two important changes in Presbyterianism. Effective immediately, pastors are allowed to officiate ceremonies. In a plenary session at the PCUSA's biennial General Assembly meeting, more than 600 representatives of regional Presbyterian organizations, called presbyteries, voted on a resolution to allow this to happen; it passed 61 to 39 percent. 

But the bigger change is definitional: The Church will tentatively change its "authoritative interpretation" of marriage from a bond between "a man and a woman" to "two people." The General Assembly passed this, 71 to 29 percent; it will go into effect if presbyteries vote to ratify it. 

This is a big deal—it's a big, official reinterpretation of what it means to be Christian and married. That's the interesting thing about churches: They're in the business of teaching truth, but that truth is open to cultural change. There was a nod to this in the General Assembly's vote: The new "authoritative interpretation" of marriage would include a note saying something along the lines of "in 'tradition,' those two people were only opposite-gender loving people or heterosexuals," according to the LGBT advocacy group More Light Presbyterians. The Church can change, but it still has a history; it can wrestle with modernity only by acknowledging its past.

But as the wide margin of approval shows, many seem to see this as the way forward, especially for a Protestant denomination that has been steadily shrinking in membership. As one church elder in the plenary session reportedly said, "The church puts up walls, God tears them down."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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