Twin Cities Presbyterians cast a historic vote on Tuesday to allow openly gay and lesbian members to be ordained ministers.
Presbyterian leaders say the Twin Cities vote of 205 to 56 was the action needed to end the 2.1 million-member denomination's national ban on gay clergy. A majority of the 173 U.S. presbyteries had to vote in favor of the new policy adopted last summer at the group's national assembly. The Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area happened to cast the 87th, and deciding, vote.
"It's very exciting," said the Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian in downtown Minneapolis and founder of advocacy group Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which supports the ordination of openly gay clergy. "I found myself welling up with tears. Up until now they've had to be closeted. Now they'll be able to come out. It will honor them as individuals and as full human beings like anyone else serving the church."
Hart-Andersen was among the 264 elders and ministers within the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area who cast votes at Peace Presbyterian Church in St. Louis Park Tuesday evening. Three voters abstained.
During the meeting, supporters and opponents of the change spoke to the assembled voters. Those against it said the change is not in line with Biblical teaching.
"It's very unfortunate we have to have this discussion today," said Peter Hwang, a member of the Korean Presbyterian Church. "I think we should be ashamed of ourselves. This homosexual issue is breaking our church. We need to abide by Scripture."
The denomination, based in Louisville, Ky., is the latest mainline Protestant group to move toward accepting same-gender relationships.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran group in the country, liberalized its policy toward gay clergy two years ago. The United Church of Christ started ordaining openly gay clergy in 1972, and more recently endorsed same-sex marriage. In 2003, the Episcopal Church caused an uproar in the global Anglican fellowship by consecrating the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The nation's largest mainline group, the United Methodist Church, which has just under 8 million U.S. members, has moved in the opposite direction on gay issues and is expected to retain its celibacy mandate for unmarried clergy.
Cynthia Bolbach, an elder and spokeswoman for Presbyterian Church USA, who was present at Tuesday's vote, said she hopes congregations which might be considering leaving the denomination "would not act rashly but instead live with it awhile."
"This doesn't mean that discussion ends," she said. "We hope this brings us more together than we were before." She added that the new policy would officially take effect on July 10, after all presbyteries complete their voting. In addition to the Twin Cities Presbytery, 86 others have voted to support the new policy while 62 have disapproved, she said.
The new policy overrides language in the Presbyterian Church USA's constitution that limited clergy roles to people "living in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."
The new policy opens the clergy to those "joyfully submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ." That language was approved last summer at the national Presbyterian convention held in Minneapolis.
"We've been an epicenter of the movement," Hart-Anderson said. The Twin Cities Presbytery represents about 25,000 members and there are upwards of 75,000 Presbyterians in Minnesota.
The Rev. Chaz Ruark, executive presbyter for the Twin Cities Area, said the group had no idea when it scheduled its meeting it would end up becoming the presbytery to cast the deciding vote: "We thought it would already be decided," he said.
Ruark stressed also that the vote "does not enact any new requirements; neither a Presbytery nor a congregation is required to grant or consider ordination for anyone they feel is not qualified."
"Good members of sincere faith view this issue quite differently, yet we are committed to honor one another in the unity of our common beliefs, in the midst of this area of disagreement," he said.
The vote also could possibly resolve the controversy over an ordained minister who was charged with violating the church constitution when he legally married his gay partner in 2008. The Rev. Erwin Barron, who was associate pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in the 1990s, was acquitted on a 3-3 vote by a panel in Bloomington in March but that ruling was expected to be appealed. Barron is now a college professor in San Francisco whose church credentials remained with the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Rose French • 612-673-4352