Tuesday, June 29, 2004

RICHMOND — Debates over whether the nation’s most liberal Presbyterian denomination should evangelize Jews and ordain homosexuals, plus a last-minute accusation against the outgoing church moderator, are the major issues this week at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly.

Presbyterians debated Monday and yesterday at the Richmond Convention Center whether the Philadelphia Presbytery, a regional body, did the right thing last fall in founding a Messianic Jewish outreach, the Congregation Avodat Yisrael in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

“It’s portrayed itself as a half-synagogue and a half-church,” said Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal, executive director of the National Council of Synagogues, who flew in for the assembly.

He was one of several Jewish leaders from around the country who attended a private Feb. 2 summit with the denomination’s leaders at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda to complain about Avodat Yisrael.

“It seems to us after 40 years of efforts to mend relationships between Christians and Jews,” he said, “it is inappropriate and painful that the Presbyterian Church would fund — for $350,000 — such an enterprise.”

Avodat Yisrael, which opened its doors last September on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, is the only Messianic Jewish-Presbyterian church in the country. There are hundreds of such Jewish-themed churches around the country, but most are independent or affiliated with missionary-minded denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention or the Assemblies of God.

Starting late today, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will vote on 25 resolutions, including one calling on it to “re-examine” its relationship with Jews and to freeze funding for any new Messianic Jewish churches.

The assembly ends Saturday morning.

The 3,000 people attending the church’s 216th annual meeting are also considering ways to stem the church’s steep membership decline, among the worst in mainline Protestantism.

The denomination released figures this week showing that 46,658 people left the church last year, the largest percentage decline since 1983, when the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States joined to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with 4.2 million members.

The Rev. Susan Andrews of Bethesda was on her last day as moderator of the now 2.4-million-member denomination last Saturday, when Reston lawyer Paul Rolf Jensen presented her with a list of ecclesiastical charges accusing her of clergy misconduct by assenting to the ordination of a homosexual pastor.

Although church policy forbids the ordination of active homosexuals, her associate pastor at Bradley Hills, the Rev. Scott Winnette, admitted to being a practicing homosexual at a past General Assembly.

Mr. Jensen said Miss Andrews “has spoken often of Winnette’s open and self-affirming, practicing homosexuality even though she had acknowledged that such conduct makes a person ineligible for ordination.”

In an interview, Miss Andrews said her assistant has never told her he is sexually active and that he only discovered his homosexuality two years after his 1998 ordination.

She called Mr. Jensen’s charges, which were presented just before the opening session of the assembly, “hurtful both to individuals but, more importantly, to the whole community of faith.”

On Monday, hundreds of Presbyterians packed a conference hall to hear arguments on revising the denomination’s ordination standards on sexual misconduct. The church’s constitution requires its ministers “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”

Repeated attempts to repeal this rule have failed, and a church task force has been assigned to produce a report on ordination standards in 2006.

Still, among the resolutions up for debate at this week’s assembly meeting is one that would replace the “covenant … between a man and woman” language with “a covenanted relationship between two persons where a lifetime commitment is intended.”

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