Gary Lyon (left) and Bill Samford celebrate after a vote allowing Presbyterian pastors discretion in marrying same-sex couples at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church at Cobo Hall, in Detroit. Picture: David Guralnick, The Detroit News

Detroit -

The top legislative body of the Presbyterian Church USA has taken major steps toward recognising gay marriage.

The General Assembly voted on Thursday in favour of redefining Christian marriage in the church constitution as the union of “two people”, not just “a man and a woman”.

The redefinition will take effect only if most of the 172 regional Presbyteries approve it in voting over the next year.

The Presbyterian delegates in Detroit also voted to allow pastors starting this weekend to preside at gay weddings in states that recognise same-sex marriage.

In 2011, the church eliminated barriers to ordaining clergy with same-sex partners.

Since then, 428 of the denomination's more than 10 000 churches have left for more conservative denominations, or have dissolved.

The church now has about 1.8 million members. - Sapa-AP