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Conservative Presbyterians Leave Church
by Bruce Schreiner (AP, October 12, 2007)

Louisville, USA - The Episcopal Church isn't the only mainline Protestant group shaken by open conflict between theological liberals and conservatives.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is facing similar trials, with traditionalist congregations planning to bolt and a conservative denomination preparing to take them in.

About 30 of the nearly 11,000 Presbyterian congregations have voted to leave the national church since the denomination's national assembly session in 2006, according to The Layman, a conservative Presbyterian publication that has been tracking the breakaways. Denominational leaders say they could lose an additional 20 congregations as a result of this latest rupture.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a conservative group separate from PCUSA, has voted to accept any of the departing congregations. Presbyterian conservatives are meanwhile organizing themselves through groups such as the Presbyterian Global Fellowship and the New Wineskins Association of Churches.

Presbyterian leaders emphasize that only a fraction of their congregations are leaving. But any litigation over church property could hurt the church's reputation and its bottom line. And the departures come after years of dwindling congregational membership and recent budget woes.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the country's ninth-largest Christian group, but its membership has shrunk from about 3 million in 1986 to 2.27 million at the end of 2006. The denomination last year eliminated 75 jobs at its headquarters amid budget cutbacks.

"It is not a split down the middle of the life of the church, but it's serious," said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief executive at denominational headquarters in Louisville. "It's always painful. And it takes a huge amount of time, energy and emotional pressure."

Kirkpatrick, who has been a target of criticism from Presbyterian conservatives, is stepping down next year after more than a decade in office. He said he was leaving because it had become too difficult to juggle two time-consuming roles, as the Presbyterian stated clerk and president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

The split could also cost the denomination some of its oldest and most vibrant churches. In Baton Rouge, La., the 180-year-old First Presbyterian Church plans to vote Oct. 28 whether it should split off. At least three more of the 66 congregations in the Presbytery of South Louisiana could move toward leaving in the coming months, said the Rev. Alan Cutter, the general presbyter. In the Midwest, Gashland Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Mo., recently voted in favor of leaving, but needs the approval of the regional Heartland Presbytery.

Like other mainline Protestant groups, Presbyterians have been debating for decades how they should interpret Scripture on salvation, truth, sexuality and other issues.

Tensions erupted after a June 2006 meeting, when delegates granted new leeway in some cases for congregations and regional presbyteries to sidestep a church requirement that clergy and lay officers limit sex to man-woman marriage.

Delegates at the national assembly also voted to let church officials propose experimental liturgies with alternative phrasings for the divine Trinity — "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Among the possibilities: "Mother, Child and Womb" or "Rock, Redeemer, Friend."

"We believe that PCUSA has moved away from being the true church and having the same biblical foundation, and we choose not to subscribe to those changes," said Phil Josephson, a Gashland church elder.

Opinions on the denomination's long-term prospects vary widely.

The Rev. John Buchanan, pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, said that while staunch conservatives and liberals are unhappy with church policy, the vast middle is satisfied.

"The people of this congregation are not at all distressed with where we are right now," said Buchanan, a former moderator of the denomination. "And I think there are many, many more churches like that, than there are churches that are unhappy."

Cutter takes a long view, noting the denomination's history of splits and mergers.

"The process of union and reunion in the Presbyterian Church ... has been going on for centuries," he said. "I don't anticipate it stopping. I anticipate there may be people that want to come back."

But the Rev. Parker Williamson, editor emeritus of The Layman newspaper, said entire congregations are leaving, an escalation from the usual pattern of disgruntled individuals leaving on their own.

"It's happening as bits and pieces of the church that are flying off," Williamson said. He contends the pace of departures is "ramping up significantly."

The Rev. Gerrit Dawson, senior pastor of the Baton Rouge church, said his congregation hungers for theological clarity instead of the "institutionalized nebulousness" in the larger denomination.

"PCUSA is not getting better," Dawson said. "It's going to keep fragmenting. And we don't want to spend the rest of our ministries doing that. There's a world to be reached."


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