MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. —Hours after giving their blessing to ordaining noncelibate gays and lesbians, leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) declined late Thursday to change the church's definition of marriage, in effect refusing to allow same-sex marriages within their denomination.
If the proposal had been approved, the church's definition of marriage would have changed from a commitment between "a woman and a man" to "two people" and allowed church weddings in states that have legalized gay marriage.
The late-night decision to table the proposal and subject it to two more years of study caught many delegates at the denomination's gathering at the Minneapolis Convention Center by surprise, and there was a stunned silence as delegates absorbed the action.
One, Virginia Thibeaux of San Anselmo, Calif., said she was "devastated and disappointed" by the shelving of a decision on whether to change the church's definition of marriage. "It's the M.O. for Presbyterians to do more studying," she said.
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Cindy Bolbach, the general assembly's moderator, said the proposal's failure indicated that delegates just weren't ready to make a decision on the marriage definition question, and "want to continue to talk about it."
The gay ordination proposal, which did pass, still must be approved by the majority of the church's 173 local "presbyteries," or district governing bodies, within the next year before it can take effect.
Had the marriage measure passed, it, too would have had to be approved by the presbyteries.
Only a few mainstream Christian denominations now conduct same-sex marriages, but many, like the Presbyterians, are debating the issue as uncertainty grows over churches' role in such marriages, now the law of the land in five states and Washington, D.C.
Legalized gay marriage "puts pastors in a bind," Bolbach said. "Let's say you have gay or lesbian members of your congregation who want to get married. The law allows it. What are they supposed to do?" The Presbyterians' discussion was "a reflection of what's going on in the secular world," she said.
Hours before the surprise shelving of the marriage measure, the assembly approved changing the denomination's ordination policy to make noncelibate gays and lesbians eligible to become clergy. The vote was 373-323.
It was the fourth time the assembly had approved such a change. The previous times, it was rejected by district leaders. Church leaders believe it has a better chance of meeting district approval this time.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has about 2 million Americans.
Presbyterian ministers currently are permitted to perform ceremonial blessings of same-sex couples, but nothing more.
The proposal to allow ministers to expand that had been welcomed by assembly participants such as the Rev. Janet McCune Edwards of Pittsburgh. Edwards was among many wearing rainbow-colored knit scarves around their necks to show support for same-sex church marriages.
"The heart of marriage is the love and commitment between two people," Edwards said. "That's what scripture teaches. Two men or two women can show all the love and commitment we recognize as marriage."
But a small group of protesters outside the Convention Center argued that scripture prohibits same-sex unions. Said protester Abaw Sige of Minneapolis: "In the Bible it is considered a sin. We can't change that."
A group called Presbyterians for Renewal also opposed changes. Its website states: "Blurring or obscuring the clear teaching of God's Word in order to keep in step with secular laws and changing personal morals only confuses our witness and causes innumerable problems for the future."
Such debates are taking place in several mainstream denominations, said Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches and executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches.
And several other denominations have voted in recent years to allow noncelibate gays to serve as clergy. But voting to approve same-sex marriage remains rare, Chemberlin said.
"Who gets ordained? Who can get married? Who can have standing in the church?" she said. "Those questions will continue to evolve."