CHICAGO The Presbyterian Church voted on Tuesday to allow the ordination of gays, becoming the fourth Protestant denomination in the United States to make the move that experts say reflects a larger cultural shift.
The debate over whether gays should be ordained as ministers has led to sharp divisions within several Protestant faiths. Some 100 congregations out of 11,000 have left the Presbyterian church in the past five years, including a few large ones, church sources said.
A majority of the 173 regions, or presbyteries, supported the long-debated change in the constitution of the 2.3-million member Presbyterian Church (USA) that will permit gay candidates to be ordained clergy, elders and deacons, church sources said.
The move eliminates a requirement in the constitution that clergy live "in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."
The 87th, and deciding, vote was cast on Tuesday by the liberal Minneapolis-St. Paul presbytery. Already, 19 presbyteries that voted against a similar amendment two years ago had switched sides.
"They're making this change amid a larger cultural change. General public opinion on gay rights is trending pretty dramatically in the liberal direction," said Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University.
"There is no practical reason to do it," such as a shortage of ministers, Chaves said. "It's a matter of principle on both sides."
Chaves said his father, a voting member of his presbytery, was persuaded to vote for it due to the vitriol of opponents.
Other mainline Protestant denominations in the United States to drop their prohibitions on gay clergy are the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Episcopal Church. The move by The Episcopal Church has opened rifts in the American church and in the larger Anglican Communion to which it belongs.
The United Methodist Church, a mainline Protestant denomination, continues to wrestle over the issue. The United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church broke new ground in the mid-1950s when both faiths approved the ordination of women.
(Editing by Jackie Frank)