While the Episcopal and United Methodist churches have struggled over homosexuality, another mainline Protestant denomination - the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) - has been relatively quiet. But that's changing.
Since 2001, Presbyterians have been awaiting recommendations from a special task force on "Peace, Unity and Purity," charged with seeking a way to overcome severe disagreements on gay relationships and other issues. Now that task force is close to completing its work, with the group preparing its final report at meetings in Dallas next month and Chicago in August.
Some aren't even waiting to read the fine print: 85 conservative congregations sent delegates to a convocation in Edina, Minn., that ended last weekend.
There, representatives endorsed platforms that laid out essential doctrines and "ethical imperatives," including the Bible as infallible, salvation through Jesus Christ alone, the necessity of world evangelism and rejection of gay sex and abortion.
The group - which calls itself the New Wineskins Initiative - also proposed a radically reorganized, mission-minded denomination to halt decades of decline in the Presbyterian church, which has a current membership of 2.4 million. The Rev. Tom Edwards of Wichita, Kan., who organized the Edina meeting, said Presbyterianism is too top-heavy and must "start serving the local congregation and stop being a structure that exists for the local congregation to serve the national bureaucracy."
New Wineskins wants its conservative beliefs and restructuring plan to be adopted by next year's national assembly. The assembly will also debate the task force report and the latest liberal attempt to abolish the church's policy against actively gay clergy and lay officers.
Though New Wineskins leaders emphasize unity around the group's bold vision, there's a scent of schism.
The Rev. David Henderson of West Lafayette, Ind., moderator of New Wineskins, sees three possibilities for the church's future:
¢ A thoroughly reformed denomination such as New Wineskins proposes;
¢ New Wineskins congregations find it necessary to leave the denomination;
¢ The denomination holds together, but congregations affiliate with like-minded networks within it, such as New Wineskins and liberal groups.
New Wineskins isn't schismatic, Henderson told Edina delegates, "because the schism has already happened," meaning liberals and conservatives are thoroughly divided.
The Rev. Jerry Van Marter, who covered the meeting for the church's news service, said it was "the most overt consideration of a split in the denomination that we have yet seen." Some participants are ready to leave now, he said, while others want dramatic change "but hold out very little hope for that happening."
Pamela Byers of the San Francisco-based Covenant Network vows continual work until church offices are opened to gays and lesbians, though "I'd be very sorry if this does lead to schism."
For years, liberals have been frustrated by the denomination's repeated refusal to abolish its sexual conduct rules, while conservatives have been equally frustrated by liberals' ongoing agitation and disregard for church law.
One reaction to the growing rift has been the "Confessing Church Movement," through which congregations with 18 percent of Presbyterian members have insisted that "Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all and the way of salvation" and that "marriage between a man and a woman (is) the only relationship within which sexual activity is appropriate." Another response was talks among a few pastors that eventually produced the New Wineskins Initiative.
Strategists acknowledge that if congregations do decide to leave, they'd need to form a new denomination because the existing Evangelical Presbyterian Church and Presbyterian Church in America are too conservative, especially on the role of women in the church.
Another practical and complex problem is congregations' buildings. As with the Methodists and Episcopalians, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) trust clause says the denomination holds all local properties. But three attorneys told crowded workshops at Edina that recent court decisions mean denominational control is not necessarily open-and-shut.