Church isn't the only mainline Protestant group shaken by
open conflict between theological liberals and
Church (U.S.A.) is facing similar trials, with
traditionalist congregations planning to bolt and a
conservative denomination preparing to take them in.
About 30 of the
nearly 11,000 Presbyterian congregations have voted to
leave the national church since the denomination's national
assembly session in 2006, according to The
Layman, a conservative Presbyterian publication
that has been tracking the breakaways. Denominational
leaders say they could lose an additional 20 congregations
as a result of this latest rupture.
Presbyterian Church, a conservative group separate from
PCUSA, has voted to accept any of the departing
congregations. Presbyterian conservatives are
meanwhile organizing themselves through groups such as
the Presbyterian Global Fellowship and the New Wineskins
Association of Churches.
leaders emphasize that only a fraction of their
congregations are leaving. But any litigation over church
property could hurt the church's reputation and its
bottom line. And the departures come after years of
dwindling congregational membership and recent budget
Church (U.S.A.) is the country's ninth largest Christian
group, but its membership has shrunk from about 3 million in
1986 to 2.27 million at the end of 2006. The
denomination last year eliminated 75 jobs at its
headquarters amid budget cutbacks.
''It is not a
split down the middle of the life of the church, but it's
serious,'' said the Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief
executive at denominational headquarters in
Louisville, Ky. ''It's always painful. And it takes a
huge amount of time, energy and emotional pressure.''
has been a target of criticism from Presbyterian
conservatives, is stepping down next year after more than a
decade in office. He said he was leaving because it
had become too difficult to juggle two time-consuming
roles, as the Presbyterian stated clerk and president
of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
The split could
also cost the denomination some of its oldest and most
vibrant churches. In Baton Rouge, La., the 180-year-old
First Presbyterian Church plans to vote October 28
whether it should split off. At least three more of
the 66 congregations in the Presbytery of South
Louisiana could move toward leaving in the coming months,
said the Reverend Alan Cutter, the general presbyter.
In the Midwest, Gashland Presbyterian Church in Kansas
City, Mo., recently voted in favor of leaving but
needs the approval of the regional Heartland Presbytery.
mainline Protestant groups, Presbyterians have been debating
for decades how they should interpret Scripture on
salvation, truth, sexuality, and other issues.
after a June 2006 meeting, when delegates granted new
leeway in some cases for congregations and regional
presbyteries to sidestep a church requirement that
clergy and lay officers limit sex to man-woman
Delegates at the
national assembly also voted to let church officials
propose experimental liturgies with alternative phrasings
for the divine Trinity -- ''Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit.'' Among the possibilities: ''Mother, Child,
and Womb'' or ''Rock, Redeemer, Friend.''
believe that PCUSA has moved away from being the true church
and having the same biblical foundation, and we choose
not to subscribe to those changes,'' said Phil
Josephson, a Gashland church elder.
Opinions on the
denomination's long-term prospects vary widely.
The Reverend John
Buchanan, pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in
Chicago, said that while staunch conservatives and liberals
are unhappy with church policy, the vast middle is
''The people of
this congregation are not at all distressed with where we
are right now,'' said Buchanan, a former moderator of the
denomination. ''And I think there are many, many more
churches like that than there are churches that are
Cutter takes a
long view, noting the denomination's history of splits and
''The process of
union and reunion in the Presbyterian Church...has been
going on for centuries,'' he said. ''I don't anticipate it
stopping. I anticipate there may be people that want
to come back.''
But the Reverend
Parker Williamson, editor emeritus of The Layman
newspaper, said entire congregations are leaving, an
escalation from the usual pattern of disgruntled
individuals leaving on their own.
as bits and pieces of the church that are flying off,''
Williamson said. He contends the pace of departures is
''ramping up significantly.''
Gerrit Dawson, senior pastor of the Baton Rouge church, said
his congregation hungers for theological clarity instead of
the ''institutionalized nebulousness'' in the larger
''PCUSA is not
getting better,'' Dawson said. ''It's going to keep
fragmenting. And we don't want to spend the rest of our
ministries doing that. There's a world to be