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Gay Issues Split American Baptist Church

Congregations in the Southland and West Virginia prepare to leave the relatively liberal national denomination.

September 15, 2005|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

Leaders representing 300 American Baptist churches in Southern California and parts of other Western states announced Wednesday that they have taken the first steps to break with their national denomination because they said it had failed to declare homosexual practice incompatible with Christian Scripture.

Citing irreconcilable differences over homosexuality and Scriptural authority with their comparatively liberal denomination, American Baptist Churches USA, the board of directors of the denomination's Pacific Southwest Region on Friday approved a resolution to begin withdrawing from the 1.5-million member national denomination. The board also announced its intention to cut off its contributions to national headquarters as of Dec. 31.

At the same time, a theologically conservative lay leader in the West Virginia Baptist Convention, the largest in the national denomination, said Wednesday that he and his allies were preparing to follow suit. They said they would propose a secession resolution at next month's regional meeting in Clarksburg, W.Va.

If the two regions pulled out, their withdrawal could mark the largest single exodus of member congregations from any Christian denomination in the nation over the volatile issue of homosexuality. There are more than 5,800 local congregations in the denomination.

The debates over homosexuality, including such issues as the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of openly gay and lesbian ministers, has engulfed the worldwide Anglican Communion and it's U.S. member, the Episcopal Church, as well as the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

American Baptist Churches USA is based in Valley Forge, Pa. It is far smaller and has been more theologically liberal on issues such as homosexuality than the separate and better known Southern Baptist Convention, which claims 16 million members.

There was no immediate comment from national church headquarters in Valley Forge, despite repeated telephone calls.

Several steps must be taken before the Pacific Southwest resolution can take effect. The region's executive committee has until Dec. 8 to report back to its board of directors on various issues raised by a breakup, including the ownership of church property. If the board of directors approves the executive committee's recommendations, the region's 300 congregations would then be asked to vote on whether to leave American Baptist Churches USA.

Details are under review of how the vote and decision would be carried out.

The Rev. Glenn E. Layne, pastor of First Baptist Church in Temple City, estimated that 275 of the 300 churches would vote to part.

"This is not a happy day," said Layne, who favors secession. "But I have to believe that God is preparing us for something better."

He stressed that the move "is not a gay-bashing issue. This is an authority-of-Scripture issue."

The Pacific Southwest Region issued a statement confirming its intention to leave the denomination. Its executive minister, the Rev. Dale V. Salico, said Wednesday he wouldn't comment further.

Salico's office also posted open letters to pastors and congregations on its website, www.abcpsw.com, Wednesday explaining its decision.

Brian Scrivens, president of the regional board, spoke in one letter of "deep differences of theological convictions and values" with the national church. Scrivens wrote that the matter began coming to a head in November when the denomination would not implement a previously passed resolution that stated, "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Other opportunities to implement the resolution failed during meetings in April and July, he said.

Another issue involved a practice of the national church of allowing local congregations that had been "disfellowshipped," or expelled from a regional group because of their liberal stands on homosexuality, to join another region. In one case, the liberal First Baptist Church in Berkeley was allowed to affiliate with the church's Wisconsin region.

Scrivens said the Pacific Southwest board was "deeply grieved" over its decision and continued to recognize colleagues in the national denomination as "beloved friends and co-workers."

In Madison, Wis., the national executive director of the Assn. of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, which supports gay and lesbian rights in the church, said that withdrawal by the Pacific Southwest and West Virginia regions -- the two largest regions in the denomination -- would be a major setback.

"It's hitting us very hard and heavily," said the Rev. Kenneth Pennings. "We're saddened by this move, but we're going to be stronger than ever on the other side of this move."

Baptists have long been known for jealously guarding the autonomy of local congregations, which hire their own pastors and elect their own governing lay Board of Deacons.

In the case of homosexual issues, national leaders have respected local congregations' decisions.

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