At a debate at the Church of Scotland General Assembly in Edinburgh, commissioners voted 215 in favour of sending the motion back to presbyteries under the Barrier Act, which comes into play when “significant” changes are proposed.
A total of 195 delegates were opposed to this move and more than 300 commissioners abstained. Voting was carried out by private electronic voting.
The outcome, which was not unexpected, reflects the strong feeling within the Kirk over gay marriage, which many object to on theological grounds.
On Saturday, the General Assembly won praise from equality campaigners after it voted 309-182 in favour of allowing congregations to “call” ministers or deacons in civil partnerships.
Speaking after the vote, the Rev George Whyte, the Kirk’s acting principal clerk, explained that the motion had passed one of three hurdles – the first being this year’s General Assembly.
He said that it would now go back to the presbyteries, and if a majority of them voted in favour, it would be returned to next year’s General Assembly.
“We are asking ‘can a person in a same-sex marriage be appointed to a ministry?” he said. “We’ll see how that flies.”
In effect, the motion requires “three yeses” before it can be passed and be absorbed into church law.
Yesterday’s motion, contained in the joint report of the Kirk’s theological forum and the legal questions committee, was aimed at amending the Ministers and Deacons in Civil Partnerships Act and was portrayed by supporters as a “tidying up” exercise to ensure ministers in civil partnerships and those in same sex marriages were treated equally.
Professor Ian Torrance, convener of the theological forum, said: “Same-sex marriage is an entirely new institution in Scotland, less than six months old.
“There is not yet a mature Christian assessment of same sex marriage, but it is with us in Scots law.”
Prof Torrance went on to say that the benefits afforded to those in civil partnerships which came into operation in 2004, including next-of-kin status and insurance, should be safeguarded for those in same-sex marriages.
However, a counter motion lodged by the Very Rev Albert Bogle, from St Andrew’s Church in Bo’ness, calling for the issue to be deferred for two years to the Theological Forum was defeated by 213 votes to 205.
Rev Bogle said: “We can’t “get on with it” when we haven’t defined what we mean by same-sex marriage in a theological way.”
Describing himself as a “simple parish minister”, Rev Bogle said he would have difficulty in explaining the term to parishioners.
The issue of gay clergy was ignited in recent times by the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie, the Kirk’s first openly gay minister, to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen in 2009.
Tim Hopkins, director of the Equality Network campaign group, said; “The Kirk took an important step today towards allowing the appointment of ministers who are in same-sex marriages.
“It will come as no surprise to watchers of the Kirk’s lengthy processes that it is going to take at least another year for today’s proposal to be fully decided.
“Meanwhile, ministers who wish to convert their civil partnership to a marriage, as Scots law now allows, are left in limbo. Nevertheless, the Kirk seems to be continuing its progress in the direction of respect for diversity, and that is welcome.”
Responding to the vote, Free Church Moderator Rev David Robertson said: “The Church of Scotland has adopted two contrasting positions; that it is acceptable for ministers to be in gay marriages, but not so for parishioners.
“The whole thing is totally confusing.
“Today’s debate simply demonstrates the growing confusion amongst the Church of Scotland, at a time when the public are looking to it for direction from the Scriptures.”