LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- (RNS) When it came time for delegates from thePresbyterian Church (USA) to vote on whether to remove a ban on gayclergy, the Friday (June 15) afternoon sky grew dark, thunder clappedand sheets of rain began to fall.

Once delegates had voted to lift the ban, liberals said theraindrops were God's tears of joy; conservatives saw them as tears ofpain. But they both agreed that God was speaking -- though just exactlywhat was being said was unclear.

The 2.5 million-member church's annual General Assembly meetingended Saturday (June 16) on a very different note than recentassemblies. Faced with a choice between control by either the left orright, delegates chose neither.

"I've seen assemblies when I think most commissioners came pre-set,ideologically committed to one side or the other," said the Rev. JackRogers, a liberal California theologian who presided over the meeting asmoderator. "But these were just garden-variety Presbyterians, justordinary people from our churches."

On a number of issues, Presbyterians said the back-and-forth annualfights must come to an end. Delegates found a compromise on issuesincluding:

-- Salvation: After months of debate on the role of Jesus Christ insalvation, Presbyterians said Jesus is "uniquely savior" but left thedoor open for God to save "those who may never come to know Christ."

-- Theological differences: A 17-member "task force" will spend thenext four years probing the deep doctrinal differences within thechurch, reporting back in 2005 on ways the church can come together.

-- Offerings: The church declined to force congregations to payannual dues, opting instead to keep the payments "voluntary rather thanmandatory." Some congregations upset with church policy -- on both sides-- have withheld their money in protest.

But by far the most contentious issue facing the assembly was thegay ordination debate. Liberals wanted the 5-year-old ban removed,arguing it discriminates against gays and lesbians and causes needlessdivision. Conservatives wanted it kept intact, saying the church cannotsanction behavior they believe the Bible condemns as sin.

By a 60 percent majority, the liberals won. The issue is far fromsettled, however. The measure now must be ratified by a majority of the173 regional presbyteries. Last year a ban on same-sex unions was passedby the assembly but failed in the presbyteries.

There was a growing impatience among the delegates with efforts todelay or defer action on gay ordination. After a self-imposed two-yearmoratorium, most felt they had waited long enough. Delegates defeatedattempts to leave the issue for the task force, and also to tinker withthe existing language. Many saw that urge to act as a sign of progress.

As conservatives grudgingly conceded defeat, both sides lamented howugly the fight had become. "I'm embarrassed, not by the vote, but by theway we've treated one another," said the Rev. Russ Ritchel Jr. ofWinston-Salem, N.C. "What God will hold me accountable for is notwhether I win or lose. What he'll hold me accountable for is how Itreated those I disagree with."

Some in the church questioned where they go from here. Both sidesare gearing up for battles in the presbyteries, but there is a growingconcern from both camps on what will happen to the other.

"The trophy of the victors will be nothing but an ice sculpture,"said elder Robert Thornton of Virginia during debate. "Maybe tomorrow,maybe next week, it will melt, and it will be nothing."

Of top concern to everyone, but especially church leaders, is apossible schism. Some 400 conservative churches are rallying behind a"Confessing Church" movement that holds a traditional line on doctrineand sexuality. Conservatives say they have no plans to bolt -- at leastfor now.

Ecstatic with their victory on ordination, liberals say they arestaying. Several gay former pastors said they were tantalized by thepossibility of returning to their pulpits, and liberals claim "open andaffirming" churches are growing.

Rogers, who will travel throughout the church over the next year andtry to keep both camps under the "big tent" of Presbyterianism, knows hehas a tough year ahead.

"We're in a bad place as far as people having a sense of trust andbeing OK in this church, and that's deeply troubling to me," Rogerssaid. "I hope we can address some of those issues."
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