The joint synod of Italy's Waldensian and Methodist Protestant churches has, as the denominations' highest governing body, agreed to authorise the blessing of same-sex couples in church under certain conditions.
Synod president Marco Bouchard described the Aug. 26 decision as "a clear and firm step forward that needs to be placed into a context that will be better defined, especially the relationship between churches and homosexual couples".
After two days of debate at Torre Pellice, 40 kilometres from Turin, the 180 synod members voted by 105 votes to nine, with 22 formal abstentions, to authorise same-sex blessings, "where the local church has reached a mature consensus and is respectful of different positions".
The synod statement said, "The words and practice of Jesus, as seen in the Gospel, call us to welcome each experience and each choice marked by God's love, freely and consciously chosen."
Before the synod, a group of Waldensians including a member of the Italian parliament, Lucio Malan, took out a paid advertisement in the Protestant weekly newspaper Riforma, warning that same-sex blessings risked splitting the churches, and affecting ecumenical relationships.
The group said that the 1655 Waldensian statement of faith, "never changed by any synod" described the Scriptures as the "rule of our faith and life", and its appeal stated that many Bible passages condemn homosexuality.
Other senior Waldensians, however, said the references to homosexuality in the Bible needed to be understood taking into account issue of culture and interpretation, to avoid the danger of Biblical fundamentalism.
Pastor Janique Perrin, of the commission of reflection on faith and homosexuality, recalled that in 2007, a joint session of Italy's Baptist assembly and the synod of Methodist and Waldensian churches approved an "unconditional welcome" to homosexual people.
As a sign of solidarity with gay people, some members at the synod wore pink triangles, the Nazi symbol used in concentration camps to denote homosexuals,
In an interview with the Italian Protestant news agency NEV, before the synod, Pastor Maria Bonafede, the moderator of the Tavola Valdese, the Waldensian executive board, referred to the issue of blessing same-sex couples.
"The issue is not that of welcoming homosexuals in our churches. The issue is the blessing of the union of persons who want to witness in front of God and in front of their community of faith their engagement in a journey of life together," she said. "We must understand what 'blessing' means in the Bible and in the Church," Bonafede said. "Obviously, it doesn't mean marriage, which for us as Protestants is not a sacrament, but a civil matter."
The Waldensian Church traces its history back to a 12th-century movement that was persecuted by the Catholic Church. In the 16th century, Waldensians made common cause with the Protestant Reformation of Jean Calvin.
There are now about 25 000 Waldensians in Italy, compared to about 5000 Methodists. The two denominations formed a joint synod in 1979.