TOLEDO, Ohio - When the last votes were counted, some members of Pilgrim United Church of Christ hugged and applauded the decision to end their 45-year affiliation with the denomination. Others wiped away tears and walked out in protest.
The United Church of Christ’s endorsement of same-sex marriage — a lone stance among the largest Christian denominations — has stirred debate and divided dozens of its congregations. Some have stopped sending money to the church’s national office; others have left the denomination.
‘‘It has caused people to really think hard about their faith,’’ said the Rev. Stephen Camp, administrator of the UCC’s Southern Conference, which includes North Carolina and eastern Virginia.
‘‘I think we’re on the right side of history,’’ said Camp, who backs the denomination’s position. ‘‘We’re seeking to be faithful to what Jesus Christ is saying, that we should all be one.’’
With about 1.3 million members, the Cleveland-based church has a tradition of support for gays and lesbians, in 1972 becoming the first major Christian denomination to ordain an openly gay minister.
Some conservative congregations, h owever, were angered by a UCC television advertising campaign that started about a year ago to reach out to gays. Some of those same conservatives say church leaders crossed the line when the General Synod endorsed same-sex marriage in July.
That ‘‘isn’t what we preach, it isn’t what we teach, it isn’t what we believe,’’ said Lawrence Cameron, the pastor at Pilgrim UCC.
It’s not clear how many congregations have left the denomination since last summer. The UCC puts the number at 49, while a group opposed to the stand on marriage says at least 77 churches have withdrawn.
Either number represents just a fraction of the UCC’s 5,725 congregations, but the same-sex marriage issue has sparked debate and divisiveness in many more.
‘‘The leadership knew this would divide the church up and down, inside and out,’’ said Bryan Moore, pastor at Shepherd of the Hills Church in Bechtelsville, Pa. ‘‘How could they not know that?’’
Members of the church in eastern Pennsylvania have spent time at retreats debating whether to remain in the denomination and fight against the policy or start anew. For now, they won’t give any money to the denomination, sending it to orphanages or other charities instead, Moore said.
‘‘We’re just not going to support a direction that we feel is away from the Bible and away from the direction of where the people in the pews are at,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s so many churches that are in the process of weighing this.’’
Members of the Bradford Congregational Church in Zephyrhills, Fla., voted to leave the denomination within a month of the same-sex marriage endorsement. ‘‘As soon as I got back to my church, they met me at the door,’’ said the Rev. James Owens, who attended the UCC’s meeting in Atlanta where the gay marriage resolution was approved.
Owens said his church is open and welcoming, but its members believe that Scripture clearly says marriage is between one man and one woman.
About 30 congregations are part of a group called Faithful and Welcoming Churches of the United Church of Christ, which is planning a three-day national gathering in July in Columbus.
‘‘By emerging from obscurity, we can affect the agenda of the national church,’’ said Bob Thompson, pastor at Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory, N.C.
United Church of Christ leaders say they grieve the loss of any church. They add that most of the churches that left were distancing themselves from the denomination in recent years.
The church says 23 new congregations joined last year, some because of the gaymarriage decision. That issue, though, does not define the UCC, said Barb Powell, a spokeswoman for the UCC.
‘‘We knew that going in there was going to be a need for broad discussion,’’ she said. ‘‘I don’t think it’s really a distraction. One issue won’t shape any denomination — ours or another.’’
The church’s national office said it hasn’t noticed a significant drop in donations that support its operations. The Southern Conference, however, has felt the impact of fewer donations in recent years, forcing it to cut staff positions and reduce scholarships for seminarians, Camp said.