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Presbyterians Get Down to Business

Agenda: Church's conservatives and liberals are expected to press their views at annual meeting in Ohio.


When the Presbyterian Church (USA) meets in Columbus, Ohio, later this month, the hottest topic in the denomination--homosexuality--won't be on the agenda.

That does not mean there won't be fireworks.

The 2.5-million-member denomination will hold its 214th General Assembly meeting June 15-22. About 554 delegates will set policy and budgets and elect a moderator to serve a one-year term as top spokesperson.

This year's meeting will likely see a push by the church's conservative wing to define exactly how the church views salvation through Jesus Christ. A compromise statement passed last year in Louisville, Ky., failed to satisfy many evangelicals.

"Both heresy and unbelief have crept into our ranks," said the Rev. Joe Rightmyer, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal. He said the church must take a definitive stand that salvation comes only through the death of Jesus Christ.

"If that's up for grabs, then we have no basis for unity and purpose as a church," he said.

At least five of the church's 173 regional presbyteries will seek to have delegates affirm a document that was issued after last year's meeting by the church's theology and worship office.

That statement, "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ," received widespread support, but has yet to be officially endorsed by the entire church.

The statement said: "No one is saved apart from God's gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet ... we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith."

Congregations in California's San Joaquin Presbytery, a bastion of conservatism, said in its resolution that "many people have asked if we still believe in what the Scriptures and confessions teach about Jesus Christ, or if those are forgotten statements that we no longer preach and teach."

For years, liberals and conservatives have lived in an awkward embrace in the denomination.

Recent years have seen the rise of the Confessing Church Movement, a loose network of nearly 1,300 congregations that have affirmed the infallibility of the Bible, salvation through Jesus Christ alone and sexual purity in marriage.

Liberals are uneasy with the growing movement and see it as an attempt to force theological uniformity across the historically diverse denomination.

The Rev. Barbara Anderson, who co-pastors Pasadena Presbyterian Church in California with her husband, Mark Smutny, said conservatives want to avoid the traditional systems for drafting churchwide statements on theology.

"The struggle all the way back to the Hebrew prophets has always been, who speaks for God?" Anderson said. "I don't think any of us has a corner on who God is or what God has to say, so I think we have to listen to each other."

Both sides are clearly tired of the yearly back-and-forth struggles on homosexuality and other divisive issues. Officials at church headquarters in Louisville have endorsed a plan to move assemblies to every other year, which would shave costs off the $5 million annual meetings.

Conservatives support that plan because it would make it harder to change church law on gay ordination and other issues. Conservatives also support a proposal to increase the margin needed for constitutional amendments from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority.

Churches in Olympia, Wash., even want to change the meeting schedule so that major changes could be made only once every five years.

"These things are so expensive and consume so much of the church's money that it's absolutely obscene to be spending this kind of money on annual assemblies," said the Rev. John M. Mulder, president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

The issue of late-term abortion will also be hotly debated, with a new report that clarifies the church's position.

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