- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 10, 2011

NEW YORK — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is poised to abolish a celibacy requirement for its gay and lesbian clergy, after decades of debate that have divided the denomination and split Protestants worldwide.

The church adopted the new policy at its national assembly last year, but needed approval from the majority of its 173 presbyteries, or regional church bodies. The Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, based in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., was poised to cast the key vote in favor of the change late Tuesday night.

“I do have moments when I’m pinching myself. I feel like, ‘Is this real?’ ” said Michael Adee, a church elder and executive director of More Light Presbyterians, which advocates for gays and lesbians. “More people will be able to live the truth of their lives, parents will talk more about having gay kids, and people will come out in Presbyterian churches.”

The new policy would take effect July 10, after all the local presbyteries have voted.

Theological traditionalists, who believe the Bible forbids same-sex relationships, have compared the liberalized policy to an “earthquake” and a “death.” About 100 of the 11,000 Presbyterian churches have already broken away in anticipation of the vote, but a group of large conservative congregations, which calls itself Fellowship, has decided to remain in the denomination for now.

Church splits often lead to expensive, complex litigation over property and pensions, at a time when membership in mainline Protestant groups has been dropping and the denominations have been losing their place at the center of American religious life. Like other churches, the Presbyterians have been forced to cut jobs and their national budget in recent years.

“Something that has been a part of the core identity of the church of which we are a part is now changing - and changing in a way that we do not understand to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture, the revealed word of God,” said Paul Detterman, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, which supports theological traditionalists. “Leaving is a possibility, but it’s the very, very last possibility for us.”

The 2.1 million-member denomination, based in Louisville, Ky., is the latest mainline Protestant group to move toward accepting same-sex relationships.

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 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.

The nation’s largest mainline group, the United Methodist Church, which has slightly less than 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.

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