Efforts to allow gays and lesbians to serve as clergy in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have been defeated again, sealed by votes Saturday.
But the margin of defeat — the final tally has yet to be determined — is already guaranteed to be much closer than in previous years. That is encouraging for gay clergy supporters and concerning to opponents, with both sides expecting the issue to be revisited in the future.
Last summer, the 2.3 million-member denomination's General Assembly voted to drop a constitutional requirement that would-be ministers, deacons and elders live in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between and a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."
Any such change requires approval by a majority of the nation's 173 presbyteries, or regional church bodies. Those votes have been trickling in for months, and on Saturday enough "no" votes had been recorded to clinch the measure's defeat.
At least two presbyteries — Northern Plains, which covers all of North Dakota and part of Minnesota, and Boise, in Idaho — voted against the amendment Saturday, according to activist groups and an independent Presbyterian Web site, Presbyweb, that has been tracking the votes.
Before Saturday, the total was 68 presbyteries for and 86 opposed, or one shy of the margin needed for defeat, according to Presbyterian News Service, the denomination's official press arm.
Previous efforts to delete the "fidelity and chastity" provision failed at the presbytery level by votes of 57-115 in 1997-1998 and 46-127 in 2001-2002.
Twenty-eight of the 127 presbyteries that voted no in 2001-2002 have voted in favor of this year's amendment. Many of them, supporters of the change pointed out, were in traditionally conservative states such as Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
One surprising exception was the San Francisco presbytery, which voted no.
"The tide is turning before our very eyes in understanding that GLBT men and women are loved by God and called to ministry," said the Rev. Janet Edwards, co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, which supports changing the ordination standards. "The church is catching up with the love Jesus has for all God's children."
Like many mainline Protestant denominations, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been fighting for years over Biblical authority and the place of gays and lesbians in the church.
Paul Detterman, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, a conservative group, said he was pleased "the church has once again voted to uphold historical biblical standards of ordination" but concerned that the vote is shaping up to be closer than in the past.
"It doesn't seem that minds have changed as much as voting patterns have changed this time around," he said. "I haven't encountered many people who've said, 'God has really changed my mind about this.' If this comes up again, as I'm sure it will, I hope we can reframe the conversation."
The denomination, based in Louisville, Ky., adopted the "chastity and fidelity" clause in 1996, replacing language that had the same effect: prohibiting non-celibate gays and lesbians from ministry.
The proposed new language would have demanded candidates "pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions."
By agreeing to that, "they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church." A presbytery or church council then would have been able to decide whether a gay or lesbian person meets that standard.
Remaining presbyteries have until June 28 to vote.