The redefinition, which calls marriage “a unique commitment between two people” and by implication includes same-sex marriages, was approved by the church’s 221st General Assembly and was recommended to the presbyteries for their vote.
Based on unofficial voting tallies, the deciding “yes” vote came from the Presbytery of the Palisades in New Jersey last Tuesday. The amendment is now part of the church’s constitution, the Director for Worship in the Book of Order.
It is a historic development that the Presbyterian Church — one of the largest Protestant denominations in the U.S. — approved same-sex marriages as Christian in its constitution, said Randall Styers, a UNC professor of religion and culture.
“Because there are a big variety of biblical interpretations among Christians, contemporary Christians, especially the youth, can have different understandings of human sexuality,” Styers said.
It will widen the discretion of teaching elders in conducting marriage ceremonies of same-sex couples who are already married to one another according to secular laws.
“As a church, the Presbyterian Church has received much grace from God in Jesus Christ,” said Gradye Parsons, the stated clerk of the church’s General Assembly. “We should extend that grace to each other in all gentleness as we live into this chapter of our common life.”
Robert E. Dunham, pastor and head of staff of Chapel Hill’s University Presbyterian Church emphasized that the new marriage language in the constitution is permissive, not directive.
“It allows churches in states where same-gender marriage is legal to offer the services of Presbyterian churches for such weddings, if the pastor and local church governing board approve,” he said.
Dunham added that he supports the church’s action.
“Personally, I’m grateful for this decision,” Dunham said. “I think it is a good day any time the church can bless long-term relationships of love and fidelity.”
Still, he said his congregation members have different opinions about the decision.
“We always try to create an environment in which we can agree and disagree with mutual respect and forbearance,” he said.
Among the five North Carolina presbyteries in the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic, Charlotte, New Hope and Western North Carolina voted “yes” on the proposed change to the church’s marriage definition, while Coastal Carolina voted “no” and Salem did not vote.