Friday, June 15, 2001

Church takes time to decide disputes

Task force looks at theology, gay clergy

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — The top elected official of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is banking that a task force review will buy some “wonderfully healing” time for a denomination riven over theology and ordination of homosexuals.

        “We feel so fragmented now,” the Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the denomination, said Thursday.

        The denomination's national assembly voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to establish a task force to try to resolve conflicts that divide it.

        Rev. Rogers, a minister from San Gabriel, Calif., characterized the disputes as pitting those who feel the church has strayed from traditions against those who welcome diversity on all but the most core beliefs.

        Task force members will be appointed later. The review is expected to take four years. “I think that's going to be a wonderfully healing and wholesome and healthy process for us. Because it will get us all engaged in talking about the things that we believe really matter,” Rev. Rogers said.

        Conservatives and liberals have bickered on social and theological issues at the weeklong meeting in the hometown of the denomination's headquarters. Despite the wrangling, the national assembly demonstrates the broad cross-section of Presbyterians, Rev. Rogers said.

        “I think they are kind of representing the church as it is. I don't think this assembly is sort of skewed right or left, one way or the other,” he said.

        The conciliatory gesture of establishing a task force did nothing to avert a debate Thursday on a core theological issue — whether salvation can be gained only through belief in Jesus Christ.

        Efforts to appease backers of competing resolutions resulted in passage of a measure recognizing Jesus as lord and savior.

        Looming before the assembly today is a showdown vote on a proposal aimed at repealing Presbyterians' ban on ordaining non-celibate homosexuals. Even if the 560-member assembly supports repeal, the measure would go to the presbyteries, or regional legislatures, for ratification.

        Both sides of the gay-ordination battle predict a close vote, which follows a two-year moratorium that shielded the sexual-conduct law from changes. The cooling-off period led to plenty of emotions displayed in committee debates on the issue this week.

        The ban's supporters point to the Bible to defend excluding non-celibate homosexuals from serving as ministers, elders or deacons.

        “We're seeing this as an issue of biblical authority: Is Jesus Christ lord of all, even our sex life?” said the Rev. Jay McMillen, an assembly member from Triadelphia, W.Va.

        Rev. McMillen said leaders of his congregation have signaled their support for leaving the denomination if the gay-ordination ban is lifted.

        “This could lead to a schism, whichever way it goes,” Rev. McMillen said in an interview. “It's either that or continue yearly conflict.”

        Kathryn Morgan, a church elder from Pitman, N.J., said the proposal seeks common ground by leaving ordaining decisions to local church governing bodies. The proposal neither requires nor prohibits them from ordaining homosexuals.

        Ms. Morgan and Rev. McMillen amicably shared their views at the convention center before the national assembly convened Thursday. Ms. Morgan said that showed the church can survive the bitter debate.

        The national assembly spent hours Thursday debating resolutions seeking to affirm that Jesus is the only way to God. The discussion was prompted by comments by a minister at a Presbyterian conference last summer that suggested salvation can occur apart from faith in Jesus.

        “There comes a time when a clear and strong and singular affirmation of the lordship of Jesus Christ must be made. This is such a time,” the Rev. Catherine Purves of Pittsburgh told fellow assembly members Thursday.

        By a wide margin, the assembly approved a resolution that reaffirms Jesus as savior and the way to salvation.

        In other action, the assembly approved a resolution that apologizes to blacks for the church's “common complicity in the institution of slavery and its oppressive inequities that linger to this day.”


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