The Presbyterian Church (USA) has defeated a move - for the third time in 12 years - that would have allowed partnered gay and lesbian clergy, but gay rights groups cheered what they called a "historic shift" in the number of Presbyterians who supported the measure.
Sixty-nine of the Presbyterians' 173 presbyteries, or local governing bodies, voted to rescind a church rule that requires clergy to abide by "fidelity in marriage ... or chastity in singleness," according to the denomination's news service.
A simple majority of at least 87 votes was needed for passage, but as of Monday (April 27), 88 presbyteries had rejected the measure. The final tally may not be known until June 28, the deadline for presbyteries to turn in their votes.
Delegates to the denomination's General Assembly - the church's highest lawmaking body - voted to rescind the ban last summer. But the measure, like all constitutional changes, needed to be ratified by a majority of local presbyteries.
The latest round of voting saw more support for the pro-gay measure than similar battles in the late 1990s and early 2000s; 28 presbyteries changed their votes from 2001 in this latest round, signaling a shift in attitude in favor of gay clergy, according to gay rights groups.
Unexpectedly, some of the presbyteries that changed their votes to support the amendment are in conservative states such as Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and Montana. Two presbyteries that had earlier supported the measure, including San Francisco, reversed their support and this time voted to reject the measure.
"The big story here is that many traditionally conservative areas of the country voted to accept gay clergy and lay officers in the church,"
said Tricia Dykers Koenig of the pro-gay Covenant Network of Presbyterians. "Our understanding of what it means to be created in the image of God is broadening."
Terry Schlossberg, of the conservative Presbyterian Coalition, said "those who wish to change the biblically rooted standard have continually pressed the matter and required repeated votes that have had the same impact each time."
"It is well past time to acknowledge that the church today, as through its history, knows her mind on this matter, and that it is the mind of Christ," Schlossberg said.
Like most mainline Protestant churches, the 2.3-million-member PCUSA has struggled for decades to balance biblical injunctions against homosexuality and society's evolving standards of gay rights.
The "fidelity and chastity" measure has been in place since 1996, when it made explicit the church's long-held policy barring gay clergy from the pulpit.
The Rev. Janet Edwards, co-moderator of the group More Light Presbyterians, was exonerated by a church court last year after performing a gay marriage and said it is inevitable that the ban will one day be scrapped.
"With more presbyteries than ever acknowledging that our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters in Christ can also receive God's call to ministry, I feel that the tide is truly turning," said Edwards, a descendant of the fiery Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards.