Conservative Presbyterians Mulling Split Over Gay Ordination?

Three months after allowing the ordination of openly gay clergy, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seems headed for a split as nearly 2,000 conservative Presbyterians are gathering in Minneapolis on Thursday and Friday with creation of a “new Reformed body” as an agenda.

Making preparations for the conference is the Rev. Paul Detterman, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, an independent organization based in Louisville, Ky., where the denomination’s headquarters are.

Detterman, administrative consultant for the new Fellowship of Presbyterians, the organizer, recently wrote in a communication to fellow conservatives that initially only a few hundred people were interested in new ways of “being church,” but the change in the ordination standards increased the number of registrations to over 1,900.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has a membership of over 2 million, became the fourth Protestant denomination in the U.S. to give the ordination rights to openly gay and lesbian clergy by ratifying a constitutional amendment on May 10.

The conference, to be attended by 70 national and regional church officials, is for “people who are deeply troubled and whose integrity is deeply threatened by the move the denomination has made,” Detterman, a longtime pastor and church musician, told The Courier-Journal on the weekend. But, he added, he was urging the group to consider alternatives short of splitting, and that there would be no formal voting or “silver bullet” solutions.

However, a split is being anticipated. The conference is “a potentially historic event, perhaps the beginning of yet another denominational division,” says an article by Jack Haberer, editor of the independent Presbyterian Outlook journal.

One of the four focuses of the conference, according to Detterman, is addressing the “increasing interest in the creation of a ‘new Reformed body,’ distinct from the PC(USA) and distinctly different from any other existing ‘denomination’ in its structure and focus.”

“The idea is to recapture our core identity, believing that Reformed theology has much to say to our contemporary culture, and that Calvin’s original vision for the nature and role of presbyteries offers a better way of relating to one another than most of us are experiencing now,” Detterman wrote in a recent communication to the conference participants. “In forming this new Reformed ‘body,’ there is also the opportunity to move with imagination and energy into the reality of a post-denominational world.”

Detterman told The Courier-Journal that it was possible to avoid an all-or-nothing split with the denomination, as there were talks about creating parallel presbyteries or ordination committees within the same geographic boundaries, enabling those with traditional and progressive views to cooperate where they can.

“For me, the existence of a theologically pure church is a myth,” Detterman was quoted as saying. “All of us have to weigh in our own minds and hearts the importance of identification with a particular church body versus the importance of the ministry to which we are called.”

Detterman said the idea for the conference began six months ago when organizers declared the denomination to be “deathly ill” and invited people to gather to discuss their concerns.

However, the conference is mainly to address the breakdown of the organized religion, Detterman said. “If we can serve effectively being connectors between the old church and the new church, the denominational and the post-denominational world ... we will have done a good job of, I think, living into our particular calling and in this particular time.”

A follow-up conference has been planned for January 2012.

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