Presbyterians Ready for Debates, Major Changes

Delegates to the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country will open discussions on several contentious issues as they meet for their 218th General Assembly beginning Saturday.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s highest governing body will tackle overtures, or resolutions, on the long-debated issue of ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians and a more flexible polity. Other overtures delegates may consider include the definition of marriage and a stronger pronouncement of their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

The biennial meeting comes at a time when the PC(USA) has continued to see shrinking membership and more congregations voting to disaffiliate over what they contend is the denomination's departure from biblical principles.

Outgoing stated clerk the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick said he regrets the level of tension and conflict in the church, according to Presbyterians Today magazine. But he feels the "vast majority of Presbyterians have clearly demonstrated they intend to stay together."

"The things that are dividing us are far less important than the things that hold us together. But we've not been able to develop passion and energy around a common witness," said Kirkpatrick, who has led the PC(USA) for 12 years and will not seek a fourth four-year term.

Commenting on the sexual standards for ordination, which have been debated for decades, Kirkpatrick told the magazine that they need a new approach to "how we relate to one another and discern the mind of Christ in the church."

While conservative congregations have been discontent with PC(USA)'s seeming liberal direction on homosexuality, some have left the 2.2 million-member denomination in recent years over a more crucial issue. In 2001, the General Assembly did not affirm the "singular saving Lordship" of Jesus Christ, causing uproar.

General Assembly Council executive director Linda Valentine addressed concerns last year over the denomination's positions on core convictions, arguing that the PC(USA) does affirm the saving Lordship of Jesus Christ and also demonstrates full confidence in the authority of Scripture. But conservative Presbyterians remained unconvinced with some saying the written standards are largely ignored.

This year, the East Tennessee Presbytery has submitted a resolution that suggests the General Assembly moderator say before every vote on an issue, "As sisters and brothers in Christ, sharing our common faith in, and allegiance to, Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, let us proceed to vote on the question before us."

"The PC(USA) desperately needs an affirmation of common ground," the presbytery explained. "Our mutual affirmation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the common ground that allows us to talk about any and all issues. Without this common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, there is not an issue we can address together."

The 218th General Assembly of the PC(USA) is themed "Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God," and will take place in San Jose, Calif., on June 21-28. Major changes are expected, as Kirkpatrick noted, including reshaping the governing body system, new approaches to mission and the election of a new stated clerk.

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