Whither the Southern Presbyterians?

“I am one of a majority who is caught in the middle of a conflict.… The gap is widening. I’m afraid I’m going to be split.”

A perplexed commissioner to the 109th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S., held April 24–29 in Mobile, Alabama, made that statement in the midst of one of a dozen impassioned debates that sharpened conservative-liberal cleavage during the meeting of the Southern Presbyterians. Professor Walter Johnson of Austin Theological Seminary described the meeting as “pivotal,” one in which the one-million-member denomination ceased “tipping its head to the right.”

After floor fireworks had subsided on such subjects as evolution and conscientious objection, unresolved issues left for future assemblies to decide gave commissioners plenty to brood over in assessing the trend of their church. Touchy topics include reunion with the sister United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A., inclusion in the 25-million-member united church proposed by the Consultation on Church Union, and first steps toward a new Confession of Faith. The latter may in the long run prove to be this assembly’s most far-reaching action.

Some conservatives voiced fear that the “New Confession” may in fact turn out to be the United Presbyterian Confession of 1967, thereby slickly paving the road to quicker reunion between the two bodies.

Long before the commissioners gathered in usually balmy Mobile—which greeted them with unseasonably cool weather—battle lines had been drawn between conservatives and liberals. Through letters, periodicals, and verbal jousts, debate had raged the entire year over alleged assaults on the “peace and purity” of the church, controversial worship services, and programs ...

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