The largest Presbyterian denomination in the US took a step towards changing the Christian group's stance on gay marriage on Thursday. The governing body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) voted to change the church’s definition of marriage to “two people” instead of “a man and a woman,” the Associated Press reports. The change, approved at the top, will need to be ratified by 172 regional affiliates over the next year. The church also voted to immediately allow its ministers to preside over same-sex marriages in its churches in states where it is now legal.
The vote to redefine marriage in the church, backed three-to-one in the vote, is expected to be approved by the rest of the church, according to Religion News Service. The issue of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples came up for a vote in 2012, but was defeated. The church has been suffering declining membership, and since 2011, according to the AP, “428 of the denomination's more than 10,000 churches have left for other more conservative denominations or have dissolved."
The church—home to some 1.8 million members—has lost 37 percent of its membership since 1992, which may have paved the way for the latest vote, according to Religion News Service.
These losses have been led by conservative-leaning congregations that defected over what they lamented as the church’s embrace of more liberal values. Those defections — many to smaller and more conservative Presbyterian denominations — made it more likely that the General Assembly would approve a gay marriage resolution this year.
“Given that Presbyterians are historically an influential denomination, the vote could persuade other Christian groups to follow,” experts told the Detroit Free Press.