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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