Where they stand
Denominations deal with divisive issues at their summer conventions
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Summer is the season for denominations to hold the equivalent of ecclesiastical pep rallies and tend to housekeeping chores-like taking stands, or no stands, on issues dividing their member churches. Here is a roundup of highlights from some of this summer's periodic assemblies and conventions:
United Church of Christ. The biennial UCC General Synod celebrated in Hartford the 1.1-million-member denomination's 50th anniversary by spotlighting speakers such as Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a UCC member. Obama claimed religious conservatives had hijacked faith and divided the country over such issues as school prayer, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
The UCC at its previous synod in 2005 had become the first mainline denomination to endorse same-sex marriage. This year's synod chose not to revisit that action, declining even to discuss proposed resolutions to reverse the 2005 action or describe marriage as "a God-ordained relationship between one man and one woman." That second non-discussed resolution called on the UCC to "reaffirm the ultimate authority of Scripture" and acknowledge the "error" when the 2005 synod said "it is not possible to rely exclusively on Scripture for understanding marriage today."
Most debate centered on the ban on discussion; liberals generally wanted to see the resolutions resoundingly defeated, but moderates wanted to avoid reopening wounds. The UCC, formed from a union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches in 1957, has lost more than 100 churches since the 2005 vote; UCC headquarters took a $2 million hit in income last year.
Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The EPC general assembly, meeting in suburban Denver, adopted plans to accommodate a growing number of churches departing the 2.3-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over recent theologically liberal trends in the PCUSA. The plans include setting up a transitional, non-geographic presbytery just for exiting PCUSA congregations identified with the New Wineskins Association, an alliance of more than 150 conservative PCUSA churches, including a number of large ones. Some Wineskins leaders predict up to 100 will join the EPC, which has 188 congregations.
Some PCUSA regional presbyteries are dismissing the departing congregations to the Wisconsin-based 75,000-member EPC with their property and little fuss, but others are fighting to keep church properties under the denomination's trust clause, filing or threatening to file lawsuits.
Most churches currently leaving the PCUSA appear to favor the EPC over the larger, fast-growing 350,000-member Presbyterian Church in America. At issue mainly are differences over the place of women in church leadership roles. The PCA doesn't ordain women, while two of the EPC's eight presbyteries do permit women's ordination, and the others are open to having women in other leadership positions.
Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA general assembly overwhelmingly voted to adopt the recommendations of the Federal Vision / New Perspectives Study Committee. The Committee concluded that some Federal Vision claims do "major harm to the system of doctrine contained in the [Westminster] Standards" and "move in directions that contradict the Confession's teaching on perseverance. . . . The Committee views the FV position as ultimately leading to presumption or despair, not assurance."
Among the Committee's declarations: "The view that an individual is 'elect' by virtue of his membership in the visible church; and that this 'election' includes justification, adoption and sanctification; but that this individual could lose his 'election' if he forsakes the visible church, is contrary to the Westminster Standards." Now presbyteries and church sessions will have to decide how to deal with elders who hold that view or others said to differ from Westminster.
Christian Reformed Church. Following almost 40 years of church-wide discussion, delegates to the annual synod of the 300,000-member, 1,000-congregation CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., approved the ordination of women. This action "nationalized" the regional local-option ordination arrangement allowed since 1995 and used by 26 of the church's 47 regional units, or "classes." The synod also voted to allow women as delegates to subsequent CRC synods. However, a compromise permits a classis to continue to set restrictions on women as delegates to local area church meetings.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. The biennial ELCIC convention in a secret ballot rejected 181 to 200 a proposal to permit same-sex blessings by clergy and churches. Delegates also recommended that churches take steps to create "a more welcoming environment" in the church for gays and their families.
Anglican Church of Canada. In Winnipeg, the ACC's triennial general synod narrowly defeated a resolution that would have allowed regional dioceses the option to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions. Lay delegates voted 78 to 59 and clergy voted 63 to 53 to approve the measure, but the bishops voted 21 to 19 against it. Approval by all three orders was required.
Curiously, the delegates earlier resolved that same-sex blessings are not in conflict with the "core doctrine," or creeds, of the church.
The defeat of same-sex blessings will spare the 650,000-member ACC from censure by the worldwide Anglican Communion's top bishops, known as primates. The primates had warned the ACC might even be expelled from the communion if it violated the communion's position that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.
The warning came when Bishop Michael Ingham of the greater Vancouver diocese of New Westminster authorized blessing of same-sex unions in 2003. Ingham denounced the defeat, blaming it on "institutional inertia rooted in homophobia" among the church's bishops. Some delegates told reporters the same-sex blessings will continue, though without official sanction or approved liturgy.
In other action, the delegates on the fifth ballot elected Fred Hiltz, 53, Bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, as the new top leader of the ACC. He succeeds Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, who retired. Hiltz is on record as favoring the inclusion of noncelibate gays and lesbians in the life and ministry of the church. He also has been highly critical of Anglican primates in Africa who are calling church leaders in the West to closer adherence to biblical standards.
The Episcopal Church. The church's 38-member executive council, which oversees church policy and business matters between triennial conventions, served notice to the primates, or top bishops and archbishops, of the worldwide Anglican Communion. "We question the authority of the primates to impose deadlines and demands upon any of the churches of the Anglican Communion"-including the Episcopal Church (TEC), the council said.
The primates in February had set a Sept. 30 deadline for TEC bishops to halt same-sex blessings and unequivocally pledge not to consecrate another noncelibate homosexual as a bishop, or risk being expelled from the communion. They also called on TEC to set up an international panel to provide alternative spiritual oversight of conservative TEC parishes. The council insisted that the primates' demands could only be dealt with "properly" by TEC's next triennial convention in 2009.
The U.S. bishops in March rejected the oversight plan and indicated the gay-related demands were unacceptable, but said they would draft an official reply at a meeting in New Orleans Sept. 20-25.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, titular head of the world's Anglicans, will attend that meeting. He meanwhile has shocked conservatives by inviting TEC's bishops to next year's Lambeth conference in England, a signal that TEC may remain a member of the communion regardless of what the primates decide. The move could well lead to the breakup of the communion, many experts say.
Primates in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, and Argentina already have set up mission organizations in the United States and consecrated conservative American clergy as bishops to lead parishes leaving TEC as well as some congregations of immigrants. TEC leaders have fought back in court, filing lawsuits to claim the property of departing churches. They also have tightened the screws in four conservative dioceses that have shown an independent streak.
"Assertions of authority met by counter-assertions of polity are not likely to lead to the reconciliation we seek," the council observed.
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