- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Most pastors in the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination think it will break apart on liberal-conservative lines by 2050, though they hope mutual tolerance will avert such a schism.
That is the view of 73 percent of church pastors in the Presbyterian Church (USA), according to a study released by the Presbyterian Panel, the research arm of the 2.5 million-member denomination.
While that many clergy say it is "very" or "somewhat" likely that in the next 50 years "a large group will split off … to form a new denomination," six in 10 churchgoers disagree.
The survey found that large majorities of the four kinds of respondents pastors, nonpulpit clergy, elders and lay members are willing to "to tolerate different viewpoints" despite the conflict. But they also mostly believe that the church "is in trouble" if members don't stand up for their beliefs.
U.S. Presbyterians have split many times in the past 200 years, usually as smaller conservative groups staked out orthodoxy. The Presbyterian wings of North and South formed the present denomination in 1983, with some loss of conservatives.
The Presbyterian Church (USA), which on average is wealthier, more educated and more liberal than Lutherans or Baptists, often is viewed as a harbinger for the future of mainline Protestantism, whose denominations are divided over homosexuality and doctrinal pluralism.
Since the denomination's General Assembly meets every year, contentious issues arise more often compared with most mainline Protestant denominations, which generally meet every few years.
At the July assembly, held in the headquarters city of Louisville, Ky., the church's liberal wing led a 317-208 vote rescinding a clergy "fidelity and chastity" rule that, among other things, bars active homosexuals from ordination.
The assembly majority also rejected a strict declaration that people could be saved only through Jesus Christ and adopted alternative wording.
In that, the assembly "confess the unique authority of Jesus Christ as Lord," but added that it did "not know the limits of God's grace" for non-Christians and described its understanding of Christ as "limited and distorted by our sin."
The conservative Presbyterian Layman newspaper declared the event "an apostate assembly," and this month the two top leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) rebutted the charge in a churchwide letter.
"It is simply not appropriate to equate the General Assembly's statement on salvation in Jesus Christ as a repudiation of the Christian faith," said the Rev. Jack Rogers, church moderator, and the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the stated clerk.
"Historically, apostasy is only declared by a church court which has rendered a judgment only in response to the gravest of offenses in teaching," they wrote to the commissioners, or delegates.
The new survey findings, gathered in February from 2,150 church leaders on a range of topics, foreshadowed an assembly proposal to set up a "special commission" to avoid a church breakup.
To downgrade the aura of schism, however, the assembly turned the proposal into a study panel.
In 1996, the church conservatives had legislated the "fidelity and chastity" rule, and the next year a required two-thirds of the denomination's 173 presbyteries, or regions, ratified the statute.
The latest vote to abolish the "fidelity and chastity" ban faces its war for ratification from January to March at the grass roots where both sides now are organizing the vote.


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