LONG BEACH, Calif., July 3 (RNS)--When the Presbyterian Church (USA) began its annual policy-making session here June 24, the question on most people's minds was whether the 2.5 million-member church would finally be able to grasp the elusive and cherished concept of "unity in diversity."

But when the meeting wrapped up Saturday (July 1), most of the 558 delegates weren't sure they had found an answer.

Despite several overtures toward unity, the nation's largest Presbyterian body left the Long Beach meeting deeply divided and badly wounded over the issue of homosexuality.

While the group soundly rejected a resolution that said the church had reached an "irreconcilable impasse" on the issue of homosexuality, a razor-thin vote on banning same-sex unions left the church polarized.

"I'm sad," said Emily Richardson, a 17-year-old youth delegate from Austin, Texas, as she stood at the back of the convention floor with tears welling in her eyes. "Mostly I'm sad for the church. I think that there's a long road ahead of us, and it's not over."

Indeed, the issue is far from over for Presbyterians. The motion to ban same-sex unions, which passed by just 17 votes, now goes out to 173 regional presbyteries for an up or down vote; a similar ban passed in 1994 but was killed in the presbyteries.

And next year when the church meets in Louisville, Ky., delegates will have to decide whether gays and lesbians are fit for ordination as church leaders. Both conservatives and liberals are already counting votes and mobilizing their supporters.

But the larger issue facing the church is how far the Presbyterian tent can be stretched before it starts to tear at the seams. Trying to make room for everyone has ultimately left very few truly satisfied.

"This is where the rubber meets the road," said Robert Davis, executive director of the Presbyterian Forum, an evangelical group. "This reflects our struggle to make our faith match our lives."

Presbyterians are not alone in their theological soul-searching. The gay issue dominated the May convention of the United Methodist Church and led to the arrest of more than 200 protesters. On Wednesday (July 5), the Episcopal Church will convene its triennial meeting in Denver, with same-sex unions at the top of the agenda.

Homosexuality has emerged as the single most contentious issue facing mainline Protestant churches since the ordination of women. While few predict any of the churches will split over the issue, the gay question has divided the Protestant church into two distinct camps that often look on each other with equal amounts of suspicion and disdain.

The only true consensus to come out of Long Beach is that there is no consensus in the church. The closeness of the same-sex unions vote indicates how divided the church is on the issue.

Some, however, say the General Assembly meeting does not reflect the sentiments of rank-and-file church members. The Rev. Parker Williamson, executive editor of the conservative Presbyterian Layman newspaper, said once the issue reaches the presbyteries, there will be no question where the church stands.

"Once you leave this hall and go into the churches and ask people about the sanctity of marriage, you find overwhelming support for one man and one woman," Williamson said. "I think they're going to find in this vote that the church is not deeply divided."

The gay issue also touches on weighty theological ideas--the interpretation of scripture, the freedom of pastors to do ministry--which ultimately will force the church to speak with one, although somewhat muddied, authoritative voice.

Because the theological wrestling has clouded the church's ability to reach consensus, there is a growing push to leave the issue alone altogether -- a live and let-live approach that would relieve the pressure and allow the church to focus on other areas.

That approach, however, would ultimately leave both sides dissatisfied, and the church would most likely find itself down the road facing the same issues it did in Long Beach.

With little hope of reconciliation, both progressives and conservatives left Long Beach with a better idea of their work ahead. Jane Spahr, an outspoken lesbian evangelist who heads That All May Freely Serve, a pro-gay movement, said the Long Beach meeting helped refocus her agenda.

"We need to be `personing' the issue, to let people see who we are, until justice is done," Spahr said. "There was no justice here."

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