2016-06-30
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- (RNS) When it came time for delegates from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to vote on whether to remove a ban on gay clergy, the Friday (June 15) afternoon sky grew dark, thunder clapped and sheets of rain began to fall.

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

The 2.5 million-member church's annual General Assembly meeting ended Saturday (June 16) on a very different note than recent assemblies. Faced with a choice between control by either the left or right, 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. Jack Rogers, a liberal California theologian who presided over the meeting as moderator. "But these were just garden-variety Presbyterians, just ordinary people from our churches."

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

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

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

-- Offerings: The church declined to force congregations to pay annual dues, opting instead to keep the payments "voluntary rather than mandatory." 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 the gay ordination debate. Liberals wanted the 5-year-old ban removed, arguing it discriminates against gays and lesbians and causes needless division. Conservatives wanted it kept intact, saying the church cannot sanction behavior they believe the Bible condemns as sin.

By a 60 percent majority, the liberals won. The issue is far from settled, however. The measure now must be ratified by a majority of the 173 regional presbyteries. Last year a ban on same-sex unions was passed by the assembly but failed in the presbyteries.

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

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

Some in the church questioned where they go from here. Both sides are gearing up for battles in the presbyteries, but there is a growing concern 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 a possible schism. Some 400 conservative churches are rallying behind a "Confessing Church" movement that holds a traditional line on doctrine and sexuality. Conservatives say they have no plans to bolt -- at least for now.

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

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

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

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