The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) narrowly rejected, for now, a proposal to abandon the traditional definition of marriage on Friday, a year after it struck down a barrier to ordaining homosexuals.
The PCUSA General Assembly, meeting in Pittsburgh, voted 338-308 against changing how marriage was defined in the church constitution from a "civil contract between a woman and a man" to a "covenant between two people." The assembly also rejected measures that would have affirmed a traditional definition of marriage or sought more theological study of the issue.
A committee had approved the change 28-24, with supporters saying that the denomination should take a historic stand for oppressed minorities. "Today the PCUSA has the chance to be prophetic," the Rev. Bob Melone from Virginia said during debate, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Some of the opposition to the change was based on conservative interpretations of Scripture. "I must affirm definition of marriage as between one man and one woman," said Jodi Craiglow, of the Miami Valley Presbytery in Ohio. She directly addressed gay PCUSA members, saying, "As much as my heart breaks for your pain and frustration, I must simply hold to the standard of the God I love."
But the vote also reflected the delegates' fear of further damaging an already fragile denomination. The PCUSA has been losing members for decades. Last year, the denomination dropped just below 2 million members, and several theologically conservative churches have left to affiliate with like-minded denominations.
After the vote, Carmen La-Berge, president of the theologically conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, told the Post-Gazette that she wasn't sure the vote against same-sex marriage would persuade congregations to stay, given their many concerns, "But, where a redefinition would have served as a lever, this may serve as a salve."
But there is clearly massive pressure within the denomination to continue liberal theological trends. Throughout debate on the measure Friday, PCUSA clergy from the six states where gay marriage is legal said they have been inundated with requests to officiate at same-sex weddings and were upset that they had to risk prosecution in church courts to preside at the ceremonies.
The highest PCUSA court found the Rev. Jane Spahr of San Francisco guilty of misconduct in 2010 for officiating at same-sex weddings when they were legal in California. According to the court's rulings, clergy are allowed to bless same-sex unions but not to perform weddings. On Wednesday, the vice-moderator of the PCUSA General Assembly resigned after controversy over her recent decision to sign a marriage license for a same-sex couple.
In an unusual move, one liberal California congregation, the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, recently split off from the PCUSA to join the United Church of Christ, the only other major Protestant denomination to endorse homosexual marriage, saying the PCUSA have been too slow to support gays and lesbians.
The marriage vote came after another contentious discussion that split the assembly. Late Thursday, PCUSA delegates voted 333-331 with two abstentions to reject a plan to divest from three companies, including heavy equipment maker Caterpillar, whose products are used by the Israeli government to maintain the occupation of Palestinian territories. Instead, the PCUSA adopted a measure calling for investment that contributes to peace in the region.
But delegates did approve a boycott of goods produced by settlements in the territories, including Ahava skin care company.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.