The general assembly of one of America's biggest churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA), will be asked to consider a series of resolutions later this year declaring that "irreconcilable" differences exist within the denomination over the ordination of gay clergy.

One proposed resolution would allow liberal Presbyterians who support such ordinations to leave the denomination, taking church property with them.

The proposals, or "overtures", announced last month by a group of conservative Presbyterians in the US state of Pennsylvania, have been criticised as "provocative" by some liberal church members. "I find it offensive," said clergyman Laird Stuart of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a group seeking to change current church law prohibiting the ordination of openly gay ministers.

"It's premature, it's unfaithful. [They] seem to overlook that most who are the targets of this overture don't want to leave the church, and don't intend to leave", Stuart told ENI. "We want to stay in the denomination, but we also want the denomination's policy [on homosexual ordination] to change."

Supporters of the resolutions say that they represent a realistic assessment of an irreconcilable impasse within the denomination. Permitting liberals to leave with their church property - something not typically allowed when individual congregations leave a denomination - would uphold the dignity of conscience of those who disagree with Presbyterian policy on ordination.

"We're trying to be truthful," said clergyman Dan Reuter, who plans to put the resolutions in June when the general assembly of the 2.5-million-member denomination meets in Long Beach, California.

The resolutions were drawn up by the Presbytery of Beaver-Butler, in western Pennsylvania.

The issue of homosexuality has long divided liberals and conservatives in several major US Protestant denominations, and is expected to be raised again on various dates later this year when Presbyterians, United Methodists and Episcopalians (Anglicans) meet at their respective annual national gatherings.

Reuter told ENI he "strongly suspects" the general assembly will not approve the resolutions this year. But he said he believed the church needed to begin thinking about what he and others felt were differences that no amount of compromise would ever be able to bridge.

Reuter said he and others were not telling liberals "that they should take a hike" - though the liberal position on gay ordination remained a minority position. Rather, they had come to the conclusion that, on this particular issue and foundational issues such as the authority of the Bible, "we probably can't stay in the same tent. Our understandings of the authority of the Gospel are too different."

While acknowledging the gravity of arguments made by some liberals and other critics of the proposals - such as the need for church unity and even divine guidance in the matter - Reuter said the critics were making the mistake of equating the denomination with the greater body of Christian believers.

"God hasn't made a commitment to the Presbyterian Church, the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, the ecumenical movement, or to any institution," Reuter said. "He has made a commitment to the church as a body of believers. These institutions may serve God, but God would continue to exist if the Presbyterian Church went out of business tomorrow."

Bill Jamieson, a clergyman and member of the Beaver-Butler Presbytery, who disagrees with Reuter's assessment, told ENI he believed ways must be found to maintain unity within the church. "This is something I just can't endorse," he said of the resolutions.

Jamieson said it was unlikely the resolutions would even get to the floor of the general assembly. But he acknowledged that some type of split might be inevitable, and would be more likely to come from conservatives rather than from liberals within the church.

Stuart, of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, said he believed the issue might well be decided by moderates and conservatives who did not wish the issue of ordination to divide the church and who, at the same time, wanted assurance that the denomination "has not lost its soul".

He said in his view that the biblically based arguments often made against ordaining openly gay ministers "are growing thin" as discussion over the issue grew "more sophisticated". Members of the church, he said, were also increasingly seeing the ordination issue as "a justice issue", stemming from the Presbyterian Church's long tradition and commitment to social justice.

Stuart said that if the Presbyterian Church ultimately decided to take a more liberal stand on ordination, it was likely that some conservatives would leave the church - though he believed that under the current policy, it was gay and lesbian Presbyterians who were leaving the church.

"If we were to reach agreement [on gay ordinations] and, say, 10 percent leaves, it's not a schism. But if 30 to 40 percent leave, it is," he said of the possibility of conservatives leaving. "I don't think there's a way to solve this and keep everyone within the church, because some of the conservatives have boxed themselves in on this issue."

© Ecumenical News International. Used by permission.