This week, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) became the second-largest American denomination to affirm same-sex marriage. After narrowly losing votes at successive biennial General Assemblies, the vote on Thursday was not even close.
By a 76-24 percent vote, the General Assembly of the 1.8 million-member PCUSA voted to allow pastors to perform gay marriages in states where they are legal. Delegates, meeting in Detroit this week, also approved new language about marriage in the church’s Book of Order, or constitution, altering references to “a man and woman” to “two persons.”
This change will not become church law until a majority of the 172 regional presbyteries vote to ratify the new language. But given the lopsided 3-1 ratio of the vote, approval is expected.
Actually, the change in the denomination's language on marriage passed 429-175, a margin of 71%-29%. It's not quite the 3-to-1 margin being repeated in endless opinion columns and blogs, but it's still a commanding majority in a denomination that had been evenly split on the issue for several years.
The new policy, which permits (but does not require) PCUSA churches and clergy to celebrate same sex marriages in jurisdictions where they are legal, will take effect when a majority of the denominations 172 presbyteries ratify it over the next year.
Why the sudden change?
Even considering how quickly U.S. public opinion on homosexuality has changed over the past decade, pro-SSM PCUSA commissioners went from a minority (48%) to a significant majority (71%) in only two years.
I have no inside knowledge about the selection process of commissioners or the effectiveness of pro- and anti- lobby groups' strategies. In church politics, well-organized and savvy caucus groups can have a large impact. But, as with secular politics, there is always a muddled middle with less intense and less reflexively polarized opinions than the activist and elite classes.
Two trends made the PCUSA shift so quickly.
First, as the AP reports, the PCUSA has lost thousands of members and hundreds of churches in recent years. Some of this decline is purely demographic. Presbyterians, like most Mainline Protestants, are aging (dying) and have low rates of fertility, intramarriage, and adult retention. But a significant number of churches have left the denomination over its liberal stances. Some are large, like the Reverend Dr. John Ortberg's Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. Many others are small.
As traditionalists leave the PCUSA for more conservative denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), the theology and politics of those who remain in the PCUSA will move to the left. Think about how the realignment of Dixiecrat politicians and other conservative Democrats to the Republican Party moved the Democrats' median ideology to the left. It's the same principle at work.
I also want to offer an additional explanation that no one else is talking about, one that helps explain why the Mainline churches are liberal and becoming more so as they decline. Clergy are significantly more polarized than laypeople. (This 2008 survey of Mainline Protestant clergy is worth studying.) We now know that a bare majority of Americans supports same sex marriage (53%). Surveys indicate that 62% of Mainline Protestants approve of same sex marriage. Mainliners, who comprise only 14% of the population, are more liberal than Americans as a whole on this issue. National surveys typically do not provide reliable data to make precise estimates of SSM support among specific denominations. Based on demographic characteristics that predict social issue attitudes, it is reasonable to assume that Presbyterians are a bit more pro-SSM than Mainline Protestants as a group – a group that includes a large proportion of United Methodists, who are, on average, less liberal than Mainliners as a whole.
Voting privileges in most Mainline denominations' legislative bodies are shared equally between lay delegates and clergy. At the PCUSA General Assembly, 50% of commissioners are ruling elders (laity) and 50% are teaching elders (clergy). If lay commissioners are representative of all lay Presbyterians (who we believe are a shade more liberal than Mainliners as a whole), then we might reasonably conclude that something like 64-68% of lay votes went to support same sex marriage in the church.
But the vote was 71%–29%.
That means that PCUSA clergy commissioners voted for the change in even greater numbers. Probably 3-out-of-4 and perhaps as many as 80% of PCUSA clergy at the General Assembly affirm SSM.
Naturally, pro-LGBT Presbyterian caucus groups were overjoyed this week. Anti-gay groups expressed disappointment. Yet this pastoral letter from the Fellowship of Presbyterians, which believes marriage is the union of a man and a woman, struck a surprisingly gracious tone:
We grieve these actions by the General Assembly. We believe we will look back on this day and see the error of these decisions. But an Assembly of our denomination has spoken, and now we must move ahead without compromising compassion or conviction.
Maybe traditional and conservative Presbyterians who have stuck with the denomination this long will prefer to remain in the PCUSA. Undoubtedly, however, another wave of churches will disaffiliate, further accelerating the PCUSA's membership decline.
Narrow passage of a controversial Israel-divestment measure further confirms progressives' increasingly unrestrained ability to advance left-leaning politics within the PCUSA.
If hundreds more conservative churches leave, the PCUSA will become even more liberal than it already is.