Presbyterian Church considers special meeting

BY Advocate.com Editors

March 19 2003 1:00 AM ET

A top official in the Presbyterian Church (USA) broke the denomination's rules when he failed to call a special meeting to address conservative members' concerns about gay clergy, an attorney for an Ohio church claims. In a 12-hour trial Monday before the denomination's highest court, Paul Rolf Jensen argued that the Reverend Fahed Abu-Akel, an Atlanta minister and the denomination's moderator, or titular leader, had a duty to call a special meeting of the General Assembly--the faith's legislative body--after receiving a petition from a California elder. Westminster Presbyterian Church of Canton, Ohio, filed the legal challenge.

"This case will decide the future of our denomination," Jensen said in closing arguments late Monday night before the church's Permanent Judicial Commission. "If the moderator doesn't have to follow the [denomination's] constitution, why do I?"

Alex Metherell, the California layman who spearheaded the petition, needed 25 clergy and 25 lay members from last year's General Assembly to compel the denomination to recall the assembly delegates. But 13 people who signed the petition for a historic national meeting on the issue withdrew their names after Abu-Akel wrote to petitioners, lobbying against the special assembly that he said would cost $500,000 and divert attention from other church work. That left conservatives short of the minimum number of signatures required under church law to call the meeting. The special assembly would have been the first ever held by the 214-year-old denomination, which is based in Louisville, Ky.

Jensen argued that Abu-Akel pressured petitioners to recant. He also told the court that once the petition was in Abu-Akel's hands, those who signed it could not take back their decisions. Abu-Akel's attorney, Judy L. Woods, argued that Abu-Akel "took every reasonable, prudent, and expeditious step" to ensure the petition was proper and that those who recanted were not under pressure from the moderator. "Everyone was free to say yes again, but they didn't want to," she said. Abu-Akel did not attend the trial but testified in a taped deposition. The trial was held in Kansas City, Mo. because of its central location.

The 12 members of the court who attended Monday's trial planned to deliberate on Tuesday and issue a ruling Wednesday. Once the next General Assembly begins on May 24, a special meeting of the previous group cannot be held.

Three ministers who reversed their position about holding the meeting testified Monday that they had felt no pressure from Abu-Akel. The Reverend David Rodriguez of Hollister, Calif., said that while he felt the church faced a "crisis" over the issue of gay clergy, he no longer believed a special meeting was the best place to discuss it. Another minister, the Reverend Nancy Gillard of Farmington, Mo., said she never understood the petition. The Reverend William Duckworth, of Orlando, Fla., said he presumed the meeting would be held by the end of last year. Once he realized that not many people were signing the petition immediately, he wondered what good it would do to call the special meeting.

The petition campaign underscores the tension within the 2.5 million-member denomination. Conservatives have been critical of what they view as the refusal of higher church officials to discipline congregations that proclaim willingness to ordain noncelibate gays in defiance of church bans. Metherell, an elder at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, Calif., has said defiance of church law extends beyond gay issues. For instance, he has said, some Presbyterian ministers have conducted communion services for non-Christians, a violation of church law. "I see this as like a disease spreading through the body of the church," Metherell testified Monday.

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