A divisive debate in the Presbyterian Church (USA) over ordaining gay ministers threatened to reignite Tuesday with a petition seeking a historic meeting of its legislative body. Alex Metherell, a church elder from California, presented the petition to the denomination's top leader during a meeting of church leaders. Metherell exercised an obscure section of church law to seek a first-ever special meeting of the denomination's General Assembly. He said he wants strict enforcement of the ban on ordaining noncelibate homosexual ministers as well as other activities that defy church law. "The whole fabric that holds the Presbyterian Church together is our constitution," Metherell said in an interview. "What is happening right now, that fabric that holds us together is disintegrating."
The denomination's moderator, the Reverend Fahed Abu-Akel, said he received the petition with a "heavy heart" and asked for prayers for himself, other church leaders, and the entire denomination. He said a special session would cost more than $500,000. Abu-Akel said the petition seeks to have the General Assembly bypass the church's court system and impose its own will."It doesn't work that way," he said.
Metherell, an elder at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, Calif., said that defiance of church law has become widespread and extends beyond the gay ordination issue. Some Presbyterian ministers have violated a ruling by the church's highest court on conducting ceremonies for same-sex unions, he said. The church court said such ceremonies were permissible but could not resemble marriages. "We have a number of these activist pastors who are blatantly advertising the fact that they are conducting what are basically homosexual and lesbian marriages," Metherell said. Other Presbyterian ministers have conducted communion services for non-Christians, another violation of church law, he said.
In his petition, Metherell said he hopes a special session of the General Assembly would heal the denomination, which has been sharply divided over gay ordination and other issues. Metherell said in the interview that inaction would lead to a split in the nation's seventh largest denomination, which has about 2.4 million members. "I hope that we will not end up having a split," he said. "But I do know that there will be a split if nothing is done because the whole fabric of the denomination is actually coming apart."
Abu-Akel said gay ordinations are not an overriding issue in most congregations. "It's individuals here and there that have their own opinions, but when it comes to the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a whole, I see a church that is alive for the love of Jesus Christ," he said. Under church law, a petition demanding a special meeting of the General Assembly requires signatures from at least 25 ministers and 25 church elders who were commissioners at the previous General Assembly. Metherell's petition contains signatures from 26 ministers and 31 elders who attended the last General Assembly. Metherell said the petition also met geographical requirements. The petition comes on the heels of a decision by last year's General Assembly to switch to biennial sessions, starting after the 2004 meeting in Richmond, Va., in part to save money.
Abu-Akel said Tuesday that he had instructed church administrative leaders to verify the signatures and make sure those signing the petition still want a special session. Metherell began his campaign last summer. If the petition passes those checks, Abu-Akel said he would issue the call for a special session. Under church law, the special session could not be held any sooner than 120 days from now, he said. That means the special session would convene just before the next regular General Assembly meets May 24-31 in Denver, he said.