Battle lines are being drawn in a "civil war" for the heart and soul of the Presbyterian Church (USA)--and the first shots will likely be fired as the church debates a ban on noncelibate gay clergy.

The nation's largest Presbyterian body is deeply divided on the issue of human sexuality, but conservatives say the debate masks more fundamental differences on issues of biblical authority and the lordship of Jesus. Meeting at the church's headquarters in Louisville, Ky., last June, delegates voted by a substantial margin to overturn a 25-year-old ban on noncelibate gay clergy. But that vote must be ratified by a majority of the church's 173 regional presbyteries. So far, six presbyteries have rejected it and none have approved it.

Removal of the ban has become a defining issue for the 2.5 million-member denomination. Conservatives say ratification would result in a swift exodus of hundreds of churches. In Louisville, worried church leaders are openly talking about the possibility of schism. The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the church's stated clerk or highest official, said he senses "the question is not if but when."

"This elephant has been in the living room a long time, but denominational officials have not wanted to recognize it publicly," said the Rev. Parker Williamson, who as editor of Presbyterian Layman magazine is helping to organize a fledgling Confessing Church Movement of 1,000 conservative congregations.

The stakes could hardly be higher. Church leaders say they fear the Confessing movement will provide an infrastructure for disgruntled churches that want to leave. Hoping to prevent an exodus, church leaders are fanning out across the country to visit congregations and make the case for staying in the denomination.

On the other side, the conservative Presbyterian Coalition will spend $300,000 to lobby presbyteries in support of the ban on gay clergy and increase funding for an "ex-gay" ministry. At a recent meeting in Orlando, Fla., a straw poll revealed that half of Coalition supporters would consider "graciously separating" from the larger church. One speaker said, "The image I have is of deck chairs on the Titanic. And I'm afraid what we're doing is rearranging the chairs, but the thing is going down."

The tone of the debate worries many in the church. Presbyterians pride themselves on doing things "decently and in good order," but lately things have gotten downright nasty. Jack Rogers, who was elected moderator in June, has been labeled a heretic for his liberal-leaning views. Twenty-nine former moderators scolded the church when they found out some audiences were not standing and applauding Rogers in his travels around the country.

One Baltimore pastor, the Rev. Don Stroud, is facing an investigation after churches in California alleged he broke his ordination vows because he is openly gay, according to Presbyterian News Service. Stroud does not pastor a church but works with a group that advocates in behalf of gay clergy.

It is not just homosexuality, however, that divides the church. Conservatives and evangelicals say their concerns about core doctrine have fallen on deaf ears. They point to a scaled-back resolution passed last June which could not say decisively that Jesus Christ is the savior of all humanity.

The church's General Assembly Council--which acts as a board of directors--recently approved a statement drafted by the office of theology which sought to summarize church doctrine without crafting a new confession of faith. "We neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith," reads the statement, which acknowledges the theological unrest. "Grace, love and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine."

A blue ribbon panel will study the doctrinal divides in the church and issue a final opinion in 2005. Kirkpatrick said the passions are real, but are likely "overinflated." "This is a lot like General Assembly meetings," he said. "You go into them and people assume there's going to be chaos and anger, but the Holy Spirit seems to have the ability to allow people who do not always agree to find a sense of community and build up the church."

Conservatives, meanwhile, say it will take more than a commission to bring the church together. "There have been earlier moments that I've heard described in similar terms, but we keep on going," said the Rev. Jerry Andrews, an Illinois pastor and co-moderator of the Presbyterian Coalition. "But I don't suppose anyone thinks we can go on going like this forever."

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