- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2001

The Presbyterian Church (USA) assembles tomorrow at its headquarters town of Louisville, Ky., to vote on moral standards for clergy and to consider a peace committee to avoid a schism.

The more liberal Presbyterians are asking delegates to delete the "fidelity and chastity" clause for clergy that the 1996 General Assembly approved.

The more conservative wing of the 2.5 million-member church has mounted a "confessing church movement" to signal that any such reversal in clergy standards will be blocked by grass-roots churches.

Meanwhile, the annual moderator, the Rev. Syngman Rhee, in an effort to avoid a schism, has supported formation of the first "theological commission" in 75 years.

"Perhaps it is time once again to establish a 'commission´ to help us in seeking a 'more excellent way,´" Mr. Rhee said in a statement preceding the eight-day, 213th General Assembly.

A moderator´s support for a peace committee means it likely will be approved by a vote, several church members agreed. Such panels operate for at least three years.

Annual meetings have increasingly become tests on how the church can have "diversity with integrity," the Rev. W. Eugene March, professor at Louisville Theological Seminary, said in an interview. "There are different perspectives on what is the mission of the church and what is the Gospel."

Meeting every year allows for new possibilities, however. "We certainly operate with the notion that at each assembly the Holy Spirit is at work," he said. "Last year was instructive, but this is a new year."

The morality clause was legislated to curtail ordination of avowed homosexuals and to send clergy a message on lax morality.

The 1999 General Assembly voted to not debate the homosexuality issue for two years, but now the moratorium is over. At issue is the clergy statute that says they must "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."

Homosexuality has polarized Presbyterians for 20 years, and it was added to this year when a majority of regional churches said there was no rule against local congregations holding same-sex "union" ceremonies.

The confessing movement this year has garnered commitments to back traditional church teachings from 322 churches in 39 states, hoping to signal that rescinding the "fidelity and chastity" rule would meet dramatic and widespread opposition.

"They are declaring that no matter what those who manage the denominational structure decide, they will not ordain anyone into leadership" who does not affirm Christ, the Bible and heterosexual marriage, said Parker Williamson, executive director of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a conservative group.

He predicted that the confessing movement will grow, comparing its numbers to the smaller alliance of 250 congregations that support the Covenant Network, a liberal movement in the denomination.

He said the national denomination´s liberal-leaning staff have been given paid leave to attend the assembly.

"So they´ve got the vote at this assembly and they´ve got the denominational infrastructure," Mr Williamson said. "But they don´t have the church." He said conservatives are not excited about a peace committee.

The General Assembly, held in Louisville for the first time since church headquarters moved there in the 1980s, is expected to draw a record number of participants.

This assembly also faces a controversy over a speech given last summer to the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference. There, the Rev. Dirk Ficca, a Presbyterian in Chicago who heads the Parliament of the World´s Religions, said Jesus Christ may not be the only way to salvation.

Delegates to Louisville also will hear a report that church membership declined by 35,000 in the past year, with a sharp drop in all baptisms, led by a decline among infants of 1,565.

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