When the Presbyterian Church (USA) convenes beginning Saturday in Long Beach,Calif., for its annual eight-day meeting, the issue ofhomosexuality will loom large over the gathering.

And beyond the sexuality questions that have polarized mostChristian denominations, the 3.5 million-member church will be asked ifit can accommodate the views of progressives and conservatives who wantto move the nation's largest Presbyterian body in entirely differentdirections.

Neither faction foresees a permanent split at the Long BeachConvention Center. But they agree a vote on same-sex unions may havelong-term ripple effects in the church. Others are simply holding theirbreath.

"My own conviction is that the things that unite us are far morepowerful than the things that divide us, and theologically there are noirreconcilable differences within the life of the church," said the Rev.Clifton Kirkpatrick, who as "stated clerk" is the highest electedofficial in the church.

Presbyterians are the second major Protestant denomination to tacklethe issue of homosexuality this summer. In May, the United MethodistChurch upheld its ban on gay ordination and same-sex ceremonies, andnext month the Episcopal Church will wrestle with the issue.

Adding to the volatility of the issue is a planned protest bySoulforce, a Christian gay rights group that last month led more than200 protesters to be arrested at the Methodist meeting. Soulforceprotesters are planning to be arrested by symbolically blocking exits ofthe convention center.

Delegates will face at least three votes on whether the churchshould prohibit same-sex union ceremonies. A similar attempt failed in1995 after a majority of the church's regional presbyteries failed topass the measure.

The most influential factor, however, may be a ruling last month bythe church's highest court which gave the church's position onhomosexuality a dramatic jolt. Because the church does not explicitlyban same-sex unions, the court said clergy are free to perform them, aslong as they are not equated with marriage in any legal or spiritualsense.

That ruling has galvanized both sides of the debate, with supportersheralding it as a victory for gays and lesbians, and opponents saying itwill force the church to more clearly define its positions.

The church's Book of Order is largely silent on the issue ofhomosexuality, only calling for "fidelity in marriage and chastity insingleness" for church officers. A church "policy" adopted in 1978 callsfor acceptance of homosexuals, but says homosexual acts are "not inaccord with God's wish for humanity."

Some say because the court would not take a stronger position on thegay issue, church delegates will have to do it themselves.

"What the court is doing is arguing from silence," said the Rev.Parker Williamson, executive editor of the Presbyterian Layman newspaperand a leader of the church's conservative wing. "Since they did not drawthe proper inference, we're going to have to draw it for them."

At last year's meeting, the church voted for a two-year moratoriumon the issue of gay ordination. This year's General Assembly is likelyto honor that moratorium, but the issue could come up.

Scott Anderson, co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, a groupurging greater acceptance of gays and lesbians, said his organization isnot expecting a "ringing endorsement" but is hoping for a continuationof current church policy, which leaves same-sex unions to localcongregations.

"It would be nice to hear an encouraging word, but I don't thinkwe're going to hear it, at least in an official action," Anderson said.

A proposal from churches in Pennsylvania argues the denomination hasarrived at a "irreconcilable impasse" and would allow liberalcongregations to leave the denomination with their property. While fewexpect the issue to pass, many say the proposal raises significantquestions for the church.

The Rev. John Mulder, president of the church-affiliated LouisvilleSeminary, has conducted extensive studies of the issues facing thechurch, including homosexuality. While opinion is split on socialissues, Mulder said Presbyterians are largely united on theologicalgrounds, and that will hold the church together.

"I'm convinced that the continuities in American Presbyterianismwill be very strong, but there will always be hot button issues thatwill disguise the underlying unity in the church," Mulder said.

Other issues that will be discussed at the 212th General Assemblyinclude:

  • Whether or not the church should add a fourth ordained office--educator--to the current minster, elder and deacon church hierarchy.
  • The church will vote on whether or not to ask Presbyterians to"refuse to participate in organized and institutionalized forms ofgambling as a matter of faith."
  • The assembly will be asked to pass a resolution condemning recentacts of alleged police brutality and calling for "accountability in lawenforcement."
  • Conservatives, led by Williamson, want to limit the financialcontributions to the National Council of Churches and the World Councilof Churches. A proposal would lower Presbyterian contributions to beequal to the average amount given by the top six largest U.S.contributors.