The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has voted to adopt a new policy on homosexuals at its general assembly.
It is to adopt the recommendations of an internal report on the issue.
It does not change the church’s theological stance – that homosexuality is wrong – but urges more understanding for gay parishioners in pastoral care.
Congregations are encouraged to create an environment of love, acceptance, patience and forgiveness and develop a space where sexuality can be discussed.
Reverend Bobby Liddle, convenor of the group which drew up the guidelines, said that the church was a conservative one, but that it wanted to show its concern for people struggling with their sexuality.
“We are seeking to acknowledge that there are those within the context of our church who in the past have been hurt and we are seeking to do better in that,” he said.
On Monday, the church’s new moderator, Dr John Finlay, implied it would be difficult for sexually active gays to remain within the Presbyterian fold.
“If someone was an overtly practising homosexual, and our church condemns that as contrary to scripture, that would be difficult as far as church discipline is concerned,” he said.
Mr Finlay 61, minister of Harryville Presbyterian Church in Ballymena, took over the role for the next 12 months in succession to David Clarke.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has about 300,000 members in over 560 congregations and is the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland.