SALT LAKE CITY — Presbyterians, equipped with a contemporary statement of non-sexist, environmentally attuned faith, ended their 202nd General Assembly this week with hopes of spreading unity in their ranks.
Newly elected Moderator Price Henderson Gwynn III of Charlotte, N.C., set the tone for the meeting of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), saying the church can reverse its membership slide of the last quarter-century if members stop fighting each other.
"If we shoot ourselves in the foot because of internecine warfare or denominational myopia, we are going to have to answer for it," said Gwynn, who will act as a traveling spokesman for the church over the next 12 months.
The 2.9-million-member denomination has lost a third of its members since the mid-1960s.
The more than 600 commissioners to the annual meeting overwhelmingly approved a new statement of faith, postponed action on altering church stands on abortion and homosexuality and agreed to explore further relations with the Mormon Church.
In the land where Brigham Young established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the assembly approved by a 499-25 vote the denomination's first statement of faith since a 1983 merger between the so-called Southern Presbyterians and the larger, nationwide Presbyterian body healed a Civil War-era split over slavery.
The document, which mixes traditional Christian beliefs with environmental concerns and images of God as both father and mother, will be sent to the denomination's 177 presbyteries.
If the confession is approved by two-thirds of the regional groups and by the 1991 General Assembly, it will become the 11th statement of faith in the denomination's Book of Confessions.
"As far as we know, this is the first confession of the church that declares as a matter of faith women are called to all ministries of the church," said Jane Dempsey Douglass, vice chairwoman of the drafting committee.
The confession also likens God to both a mother who will not forsake her nursing child and a father "who runs to welcome the prodigal home."
On the environment, the confession says humans deserve God's condemnation for the way they "threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care."
At the same time, the statement upholds centuries-old church teachings that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully God, and that God raised Jesus from the dead to offer eternal life.
Although noting the discrimination faced by non-Mormons in Utah, the assembly also accepted a report calling for opening an informal dialogue with the Mormon Church--an exercise in diplomacy at the meeting site that may turn out to be significant only for smoothing relations for the 5,000 Presbyterians living in Utah.
Many non-Mormons say life is not easy in a state where about 70% of the state's 1.6 million residents are Mormon, as are the governor and 98% of state legislators.
The report to the Presbyterian General Assembly prepared by the Presbytery of Utah cites one survey that found a majority of non-Mormons believed local companies are biased in hiring and promoting employees, and another that showed the majority of Mormon residents are unaware of any bias toward non-Mormons.
"The church leaders encourage members to go out of their way to be kind to neighbors of other faiths. That's our policy," said Don LeFevre, director of media relations. The Mormons, however, have no plans to back down on proselytism. "Our philosophy is we have something so precious we would like to show it," LeFevre said.
He said the church has always backed freedom of conscience for all religious groups, and he characterized individual acts of unfriendliness toward non-Mormons as isolated instances.
Several resolutions relating to abortion and homosexuality were postponed until 1991, when a special Task Force on Human Sexuality is scheduled to make its report. The denomination supports legalized abortion, and opposes the ordination of homosexuals.
"They seem to be bending over backwards to be kind to one another and avoid controversial issues," Parker T. Williamson of the Presbyterian Layman, a conservative publication, said after the votes to defer action.
But in a move criticized by several commissioners as avoiding dispute at the price of suppressing dissent, the assembly voted to take away semi-official church status from 21 Presbyterian organizations, including some of the denomination's staunchest liberal and conservative critics.
The discussion was sparked by an uproar caused last summer when Presbyterians for Lesbian-Gay Concerns distributed sexually explicit pamphlets to high school and college youths at a church meeting.
The assembly vote, which still must be approved by a majority of the regional presbyteries, would take away the right to be officially represented at church meetings from not only the homosexual caucus but other liberal groups such as the Witherspoon Society and conservative groups such as the Presbyterian Lay Committee and Presbyterians Pro-Life.
If a majority of the regional presbyteries agree, the organizations will no longer "be attached officially to the church," said Marj Carpenter, news director of the church.
In other business, the assembly voted to allocate $1 million for a five-year program to set up self-help programs for black men. The church is less than 2% black.
Also, by approving a 93-page document called "Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice," commissioners voted to establish a denominational office on environmental justice, and incorporate environmental concerns into worship and preaching, education programs and community ministries.