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Presbyterian Church schism over gay ordination splits congregations

Presbyterian Church schism over gay ordination splits congregations


More than 200 Presbyterian congregations nationwide have been torn asunder over the Presbyterian Church USA's new rules and the ordination of its first gay minister.

The rift has resulted in lawsuits, sold churches, broken friendships and scattered congregations.

The Presbyterian Church, with roughly 3 million congregants across the country, has attracted independent thinkers dating back to 16th-century followers of John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation, Wilkins said. Five Presbyterians signed the Declaration of Independence.

But the church split during the Civil War over how the Bible was interpreted. Many Southerners felt the Bible provided justifications for slavery, and Northerners said there was no justification. That battle was laid to rest in 1983 with the unification of the two churches.

Last year, a new schism began when the Presbyterian USA church instituted new rules permitting gay clergy. More conservative congregations split from the church as a result.

Even before that, there had been churches who separated over attitudes toward homosexuality. The consequences for some splintered congregations have in some cases been harsh.

"Many of them are doing it at incredible cost: They've lost their buildings, the Presbytery's locked their doors and closed their bank account. But they're willing to pay that price for what they believe," said the Rev. Don Baird, a traditionalist who has been pastor since 1995 of Fremont Fremont Presbyterian Church in California.

In a historic vote in October 2011, 427 Fremont Presbyterian congregants voted to leave the national denomination while 164 voted to stay. At the time, the 128-year-old congregation had about 1,200 members.

The vote prompted a church investigation into the schism to determine which faction was entitled to the church property valued at $9 million.

But an unlikely compromise was reached for a shared campus. Leaders say Fremont is perhaps the only Presbyterian church in America where this has happened.

Divided by their differences -- the congregation falls into camps of so-called progressives and traditionalists -- the members nonetheless share sacred spaces at the church site near California State University, Sacramento.

About 50 progressives who support the Presbyterian Church USA's decision to allow gay clergy pray in the church's chapel at 11:15 a.m. Meanwhile, 300 traditionalists who left the Presbyterian Church USA for the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church last year join the 11 a.m. service at the adjacent Community Life Center. Progressives and traditionalists still sing in the choir and go on missions and retreats together.

"Yes, it is a miracle," said Marty Boersma, among the hundreds of Fremont traditionalists who split off to join the Evangelical Presbyterians. "We thought this might be too tough a nut to crack."

The Sacramento Presbytery, representing 35 churches in Northern California, helped mediate the sharing agreement.

"It was a creative way for all groups to move ahead in their chosen paths," said Transitional Presbyter Jay Wilkins, who administers the region's churches. "It's the first time we've ever reached such an agreement."

Fremont's progressives have renamed themselves University Presbyterian Church.

One of their leaders, Joe Cavness, said his church believes "men inspired by God wrote the Bible and sometimes went overboard."

In their foundation statement, the progressives declare, "The University Presbyterian Church means to uphold a tradition in which Christian love is expressed freely and openly, and fellow members are supported on their spiritual journey, without regard to gender or sexual orientation ... Christian faith incorporates elements of doubt and allows for differences of opinions. Through questioning, study and prayer an individual creates his own belief system."

But Mark Eshoff, Fremon's executive minister, who negotiated for the group that joined the Evangelical Presbyterians, said it wasn't just the issue of gay ordination that caused the split.

Eshoff said the church he left had been drifting away from orthodox interpretations of the Bible over the last 25 years. "Love and tolerance are becoming more important than holiness and righteousness," he said. "When they supplant what we believe is God's plan for our lives, that becomes a problem."

Mike Lee, a 20-year veteran of Fremont who was discussing bicycling with another congregant in the courtyard between services, reflects the internal struggles congregants face.

While he accepts gays in secular life, he feels differently about their role in a religious setting. "I don't see a problem with a gay couple coming together in a civil union and raising a family," Lee said. "But in church, I don't think they should preach that the gay and lesbian lifestyle is their right."

Across the courtyard, Judy and Ken Kerri explained why they've stood with the progressives. "Originally, Fremont was a very liberal church," Judy Kerri said. "Martin Luther King Jr.'s father spoke to us right here. We marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965."

What had always been a very welcoming, open and inclusive church "suddenly became very exclusive and excluded gay people from any meaningful leadership position," she said.

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