Presbyterian Church leaders in the US have approved a policy change which would allow non-celibate gay church members in committed relationships to become clergy.

Fifty-three per cent of delegates at the church’s annual general assembly in Minneapolis approved the change.

However, it must be approved by the church’s 173 presbyteries, which have more than two million members.

This is the fourth time since 1997 that the church has attempted to lift the ban on non-celibate gay clergy, as the move has been knocked down each time by church members.

Currently, those wishing to serve as deacons, elders or ministers must “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness”.

The motion, put forward by the Presbytery of Western Reserve in Ohio, proposes that this should be replaced with new language which makes no mention of sexuality and instead requires would-be clergy to “submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life”.

Delegates also voted to remove the threat of punishment for clergy who perform same-sex marriages in states which allow the practice.

In another, extremely close, vote, delegates voted 51 per cent to 49 per cent to maintain the church’s definition of marriage as between “a man and a woman”, rather than “two people”.

General Assembly moderator Cindy Bolbach said: “The church was not yet ready to make a decision. This kind of thing happens at every assembly.”

She added that such votes were about “trying to figure out where God is leading the church. Women’s ordination took us years and years to decide.”

The Presbyterian Church is thought to be the tenth largest church in America.