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Panel pleads for
unity as Presbyterians debate gay issues

Panel pleads for
unity as Presbyterians debate gay issues

A special panel of the Presbyterian Church (USA) appealed Thursday for the church's 2.4 million members to seek unity as they continue a divisive debate over homosexuality and the Bible. The panel urged the church's 2006 national general assembly to make no changes to a 1997 law that limits clergy and lay officeholders to sex within heterosexual marriage, though liberals have submitted bills to repeal the rules. Instead, the panel outlined a strategy in a 39-page report it says "is designed to help the church maintain peace, unity, and faithfulness to scriptural and theological principles while that debate continues." The issue of homosexuality, particularly in church leadership, has long vexed many of the mainline Protestant denominations. Among Presbyterians, it has been one of the most contentious issues dividing conservatives and liberals. Some conservatives consider the differences in beliefs within the denomination so distinct they have discussed whether a time may come to split off from the church altogether. The Reverend Gary Demarest of Pasadena, Calif., a co-moderator of the panel, said the panel's report "is not a time-buying tactic but a call to the church to look at this ongoing debate in a different light." The report will be mailed to the denomination's 11,000 congregations next month for discussion and then go before the general assembly next June. The 20-member Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church began work in 2001, following decades of debate over how to interpret scriptural teachings about homosexual activity. Its report includes an extended theology section, but there is likely to be more discussion of recommendations on how to decide fitness for church office. The panel affirmed the national church's power to set standards for officers' doctrine and conduct, but it said local congregations and regional presbyteries must apply the standards to individuals. The national church can review the adequacy of candidate screening but cannot override local judgments on "which matters are essential" and how serious any deviations are, the report said. "No candidate perfectly conforms to the church's standards," the panel said. The liberal Covenant Network of Presbyterians and conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee were studying the report and had no immediate response. The Covenant Network and its allies have lost three attempts to repeal the 1997 ban on same-sex unions. Conservatives have been frustrated that congregations continue to defy that law and the denomination allows ceremonies to bless same-sex couples. Another dispute threatening to fracture the church erupted in 2001 when national church leaders decided it was proper that a talk at a denominational meeting suggested people are saved apart from faith in Jesus Christ. That sparked the Confessing Church Movement, which declares that "Jesus Christ alone is the way to salvation" and upholds tradition on the Bible and sexual morals. In June delegates from 85 congregations also met to lay the groundwork for conservatives to form a self-sustaining network or even quit the denomination if it doesn't make sweeping reforms. (AP)

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