The governing bodies of two of the largest mainline Protestant denominations in the country -- the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church -- recently issued decisions that reflect the swiftly shifting landscape on same-sex marriage, gay rights and the white mainline Protestant community. The debates were driven not only by the need for clarity in internal church matters such as ordination, but also by the need to provide guidance to clergy who serve congregants in the growing number of states where gay and lesbian couples are allowed to marry legally.
At its biannual conference, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) debated for more than three hours before narrowly rejecting a bid to modify the definition of marriage in the church constitution as "a covenant between two people." As a result, Presbyterian clergy who officiate at gay weddings, even in states that allow gay couples to marry, continue to risk censure by the denomination. The composition of the vote, however, illustrated sharp generational divides that signal an impending shift away from an exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage. The overall vote was 338 to 308, with two abstentions. But notably, seminary students and young adult delegates (whose votes were strictly advisory) voted overwhelmingly in favor of modifying the definition of marriage to afford local pastors the option of including gay and lesbian couples (82 percent and 75 percent support respectively).
Meanwhile, at the Episcopal Church's triennial General Convention, the church's House of Deputies voted to change the church's "nondiscrimination canons" to include "gender identity and expression," a move that forbids discrimination against candidates for the priesthood who are transgender. The next day, the same body voted to approve a new liturgy for blessing same-sex unions, which the Episcopal Church already allows at the discretion of local priests.
The Presbyterian Church's narrow vote, and the Episcopal Church's two shifts in policy, herald a wider change among white mainline Protestants, who are increasingly in favor of expanded rights for gay and lesbian people, including same-sex marriage. Recent PRRI polling reveals that a majority (51 percent) of white mainline Protestants favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, while 57 percent agree that gay and lesbian people should be eligible for ordination as clergy with no special requirements. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of white mainline Protestants say that if the place of worship they usually attend decided to allow blessings of gay and lesbian couples, they would continue to attend, while only one-quarter (23 percent) say they would look for another church. And 9-in-10 (90 percent) white mainline Protestants agree that transgender people deserve the same rights and protections as other Americans.
The generational divides in the Presbyterian vote also suggest that for churches who are interested in keeping younger members in the pews, strong opposition to equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans may an be increasingly difficult stance. Strong generational divides on same-sex marriage persist in the general population, with two-thirds (67 percent) of Millennials (age 18 to 29) supporting same-sex marriage, compared to about 1-in-3 (32 percent) seniors (age 65 and up). There is some awareness of the potential for more conservative stances on gay and lesbian issues to estrange young adults from churches: half (50 percent) of white mainline Protestants overall agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues. The perception that Christianity itself is opposed to gay rights is also strongly felt among young adults: according to the 2012 Millennial Values Survey, 55 percent of white mainline Protestant younger Millennials (age 18 to 24) say that "anti-gay" describes present-day Christianity somewhat or very well.
White mainline Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopal Church continue to hold an influential place in America's religious landscape. Despite the Presbyterian Church's ultimate decision to maintain an exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage in its constitution, the strength of its younger members in demanding a broader definition of marriage signals that a shift may only be a matter of time. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church continues at the vanguard of mainline Protestant denominations who are broadening their support for same-sex clergy and laity. Going forward, it will be instructive to see how these American religious bodies navigate the coming sea change on attitudes led by their younger American members toward more inclusive policies with regard to same-sex relationships, which often puts them in tension with older members and some segments of their international communion.