EPISCOPAL CHURCH AND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
IN CONFLICT OVER ALLOWING HOMOSEXUAL MARRIAGE AND GAY BISHOPS
By RICHARD N. OSTLING, AP Religion Writer Fri Jul 7, 8:18 AM ET
The Episcopal Church's split
over homosexuality is getting worldwide attention, but a denomination of roughly equal numbers and stature in the United States — the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) —
is similarly torn up by the issue.
And as with the Episcopalians,
compromises have left both liberal and conservative activists unsatisfied.
The Presbyterian conflict
entered a new phase when a June assembly in Birmingham, Ala.,
approved a two-sided unity plan. For the conservatives, a church law remains in place that requires clergy and lay officers
to limit sex to man-woman marriage — in keeping with biblical teaching as it's been traditionally understood.
But liberals were granted
new leeway for local congregations and regional presbyteries to sidestep that sexual law with particular nominees. So an openly
gay minister or lay elder could take office if local Presbyterians hold the liberal position that the Bible is chiefly concerned
with love and inclusiveness.
Now, both sides are spending
the summer in strategy meetings, where plotting next steps is the order of the day.
The Rev. Michael Walker,
executive director of the conservative Presbyterians for Renewal, said Monday that the "decision to allow something as central
as sexual morality to be a matter for local determination" gutted Presbyterian principles. Still, he urged fellow conservatives
not to quit the denomination for now.
Walker spoke in North Carolina at
Montreat Conference Center
to 1,000 conservatives during the first of four conferences by groups that oppose the Birmingham
The day that flock departed
Montreat, about 260 Presbyterians arrived for a radically different "Celebrating Common Ground" rally, where supporters of
the unity plan included presidents of nine seminaries and 16 moderators (titular heads of the denomination who are elected
for limited terms).
One speaker, Barbara Wheeler
of New York's Auburn Theological Seminary, thinks the Birmingham
plan provides helpful "space for the exercise of conscience" and will "wrest control of the church's agenda from a small number
of groups that have a vested interest in keeping the church in combat mode."
Nonetheless, future conflicts
By Wheeler's estimate, two-thirds
of active churchgoers still believe gay sex is sinful while a majority of clergy now disagree. Moreover, activists on both
sides are unwilling to relent.
Complete repeal of the gay
clergy ban remains the long-term goal of groups like the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. "We don't know how long the change
will take, but it is coming," said the Rev. Kim Clayton Richter of Georgia's
Columbia Theological Seminary. "And we feel the actions of this assembly are modest steps forward."
Repeal requires approval
from a majority of regional presbyteries and on the last attempt in 2002, 73 percent voted conservative. The Birmingham plan was the only way to bring flexibility on the issue.
Meanwhile, activists from
14 conservative groups jointly served notice in a statement that "we cannot accept, support or tolerate" the Birmingham plan. Overturning it is now a central task, says Presbyterian Coalition's Executive
Director Terry Schlossberg.
"There is a sovereign Lord,
and we cannot say any trend is inevitable," she said.
In the wake of the Birmingham assembly, church tribunals will likely get a run of complaints
against gay pastors — cases that will test the compromise.
Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh
Theological Seminary, author of the conservative magnum opus "The Bible and Homosexual Practice," thinks that "whether the
denomination will stay together now depends in large measure" on whether the denomination's highest court eventually upholds
the sexual law.
Despite all the tumult,
there are reasons for the 2.3 million-member church to stay intact, even if it can't agree on such a seemingly basic issue.
Schism would waste both time and vast sums of money in property lawsuits.
A simpler option operates
in the more loosely knit Southern Baptist Convention, where some 1,800 congregations that oppose the conservative leadership
simply ignore SBC meetings and send no money. Instead they attend Cooperative Baptist Fellowship meetings and obtain denomination-type
services from the fellowship and other agencies. Such Internet-driven alliances among soul mates are growing in many denominations.
Walker told his Montreat audience that after Birmingham, nobody really agrees what Presbyterianism is any longer, which "encourages greater
local control, and admits the weakness of our national identity." Other conservatives have indicated they're now focused on
ways for congregations to exist largely apart from the denomination.
Though few congregations
may officially leave in the short run, there's more danger of walkouts by individuals frustrated with the direction of the
church: After decades of steady decline, denominational officials prudently projected a membership loss of 66,000 in 2007
and 85,000 in 2008.