Presbyterians North and South get set to vote on church merger plan

It could be called a stained-glass window referendum on women, blacks, and states rights.

Actually it is a vote on what could be one of the largest church mergers in US history. It will test how much the differences that erupted during the Civil War have been resolved - not only in churches but, to some degree, in society.

The two main branches of the -Presbyterian Church, one based in New York and the other here in Atlanta, would become the fifth largest denomination in the United States if the merger plan is adopted in February. The decision is expected to be close, with Southern churches providing the swing vote.

But the bargaining behind the plan reflects issues that go far beyond one faith's organization: among them, representation of women and minorities and local vs. a higher level of power.

''The hidden agenda is 'state's' rights vs. 'federalism,' '' says the Rev. John F. Anderson Jr. of Dallas, who heads the Southern-based branch and favors the merger. ''A whole lot of the give-and-take has been the art of politics - the art of compromise,'' he said in an interview here.

Mr. Anderson and others favor the merger as a way to pool the resources of the two branches, eliminating duplication of services, and as a way to speak in a more unified way in the US and in missionary work abroad.

Opponents of the plan express concern that the Northern branch may be too ''liberal,'' or that the much smaller Southern branch (approximately 800,000) will be ''swallowed up'' by the Northern branch (2.4 million).

But the issue of local administrative freedom of choice underlies the debate.

Reflecting the continuing differences of opinion in Southern society over key social as well as church issues, the merger plan does not try to force a ''Northern'' solution. Exemptions are provided to Northern-branch requirements on the election of women and minorities to church offices and on other sensitive issues.

The Southern churches do not like to be told what to do, says a merger opponent, the Rev. Harrison Morgan of Albany, Ga. Most Southern churches already elect women to church offices, he says, but the Southern-branch rules make it optional while Northern-branch rules make it mandatory.

Southern resistance to ''coerciveness'' made the exemptions in the merger plan necessary, he says. But he opposes the merger because of the exemptions. ''Everyone should play under the same rules,'' he says.

Under the merger plan, churches would be required to elect at least some women to church offices. A local church will be allowed to vote itself exempt from this requirement for up to 15 years, however. Election of minorities to church office must reflect their representation in the branch church, with no exemptions. But Presbyterian churches with a substantial mix of blacks and whites are ''few and far between,'' says a church source.

The ''state's rights'' issue also crops up in another form: church property rights. Under the merger terms, local churches must vest the right to buy or sell their property in a higher level of church government, as the Northern-branch churches already do. This is not a popular idea among many of the Southern churches, hence a compromise exemption is allowed.

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