About the time that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) opened its 213th General Assembly in Louisville, Kentucky, the liberal Institute for Democracy Studies released a report saying the denomination was being threatened by a conservative takeover. Renewal movements in the church, the group said, are "deeply political and unambiguously part of the growth of right-wing political power in the United States," which is trying to "neutralize or eliminate mainline Protestant churches as socially conscious institutional forces in public life." The report actually called the rise of such renewal groups a "crisis.".

The Institute for Democracy Studies was right about one thing: there is a crisis in the PCUSA. But the liberals apparently don't have to worry about a conservative takeover. If anything, the denomination took its biggest steps toward liberalism this week.

Garnering the most headlines, of course, is the General Assembly's decision to lift the ban on ordaining gays and lesbians. In a 317-208 vote, the denominational delegates voted to delete language in the PCUSA Book of Order requiring ordained church officers "to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." The resolution also called a 1978 "authoritative interpretation" of The Book of Order, which barred "self-affirming, practicing homosexuals" from ordination, to be of "no further force or effect." The proposal must now be approved by a majority of the church's 173 presbyteries, but that's not unlikely—the presbyteries recently voted against a ban on same-sex unions.

According to The Courier-Journal of Louisville, liberals "appealed to what is probably the most frequently quoted passage in the Presbyterians' constitution: 'God alone is Lord of the conscience. … Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment in … religion as universal and unalienable.' … Conservatives say that what is often lost in the appeal to conscience is another part of their constitution, one requiring a minister to 'exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God.'"

Reaction stories are popping up in newspapers around the country. "This is a sad day in the life of the Presbyterian Church," Ronald Scates, pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church (the largest congregation in the PCUSA) tells The Dallas Morning News. "This is very disconcerting."

"Twice in the last five years we've voted on this, and each time it tears at the fabric of our presbytery," Ted Mikels, of the Salem Presbytery in North Carolina tells The Washington Post. "To send this out again will create greater rancor and polarization. We need prayer and study and dialogue, not more legislation."

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Liberals see the legislation, in the words of former General Assembly moderator John Buchanan, as a move that "creates space to live and work together" in the denomination. Echoes Kathryn Morgan, an elder of the West Jersey Presbytery, "How can we talk openly and honestly while preserving legislation that prevents openness and honesty, and where some are kept away from the table?"

Julia Lieblich, religion reporter for the Chicago Tribune, notes the irony of the decision: "a call for inclusivity that threatens to further alienate the most conservative members of a divided church." Indeed, newly elected moderator Jack Rogers, called the debate the "Presbyterian civil war."

But alienated conservative members may not find the ordination of gay clergy the most troubling debate coming out of the General Assembly. Garnering fewer headlines was a debate over the uniqueness of Christ. After much debate—about the same amount of time the denomination spent debating the ordination of homosexuals—the General Assembly passed the following resolution: "Although we do not know the limits of God's grace and pray for the salvation of those who may come to know Christ, for us the assurance of salvation is found only in confessing Christ and trusting Him alone." It sounds good at a first, but compared to other proposed resolutions, it's namby-pamby at best. Jesus may not be the only way to salvation, the denomination essentially said, but he's the only way we are sure of it. The debate, which stems from a minister's statement at a denominational conference that Jesus is not the only way to salvation. And that seems to be the opinion of several of the delegates at the Assembly.

Different religions, said Timothy Sakelos of Cincinnati, "taste, smell and look different, but they are all authentic fruits. If you look more deeply, one can see the sunshine, rain and minerals. Only their manifestations are different. … All religions have similarities and differences, but the real difference only exists in their emphasis."

No wonder that Joe Rightmyer, director of Presbyterians for Renewal, complained, "What has crept into the life of the Presbyterian Church is not just differences of opinion, it's unbelief."

That wasn't the only theological issue the General Assembly concerned itself with, either. It made a special effort to condemn the popular LeftBehind end times novels as "based upon an interpretation of the Bible (specifically the book of Revelation) which is not in accord with our Reformed understanding of Covenant Theology." Nice to know they're so concerned with their traditional understandings of theology, isn't it?

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(If you still want more on the PCUSA General Assembly, Presbyweb will fill your browser with links beyond your wildest imagination.)

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