The Presbyterian Church adopted a historic statement of faith Saturday that places sexual equality and environmental concerns into the official church canon. Commissioners to the 203rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted 412-40 to place "A Brief Statement of Faith" in the church's Book of Confessions, alongside such documents as the 4th century Nicene Creed and the 16th century Heidelberg Catechism.
After the vote, they stood and cheered.
The statement is in the form of an 80-line prayer that says in part that everyone is created "equally in God's image, male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community."
The vote was the last action needed to make the document the 11th statement of faith in the church's Book of Confessions.
In the short debate, one commissioner objected to the use of traditional masculine imagery of God as the father at the end of the document. But the whistles and applause that followed its passage indicated the majority enthusiastically endorsed the statement.
"This is a point of central identity for us," the Rev. Jack Stotts, chairman of the committee that drafted the original statement, said Saturday. "This is really who we are."
Women have been ordained in the Presbyterian Church since the 1950s, but two 16th century documents in the Book of Confessions forbid women from exercising public ministry.
"It was very important to us that we make clear the Holy Spirit is calling men and women to all ministries of the church as a theological statement, as part of a confession of faith," said Jane Dempsey-Douglass, Princeton Theological Seminary professor who helped draft the statement.
Sexual equality now transcends the level of church politics, said the Rev. Paul Leggett of Montclair, N.J. "It's an article of faith."
The statement of faith also demands greater concern for the environment, declaring humans deserve God's condemnation for abusing the planet.
"It comes up in the category of sins, not just inconvenience," Douglass said.
Even as Presbyterians wrapped up the eight-year process of developing a new statement of faith, they were preparing for a heated debate Monday over a disputed report that would endorse sexual relations outside of marriage.