US churches toil harder for unity in pews

After decades of declining membership, mainline Christian denominations face another serious challenge - polarized pews.

The lightning-rod issue is homosexuality, but the underlying story now playing itself out in America's churches is whether a deep divide between liberals and conservatives/evangelicals can be bridged.

The liberal-conservative fissure is so pronounced that it now dominates the religious landscape more, even, than denominational divisions. Much is at stake in the struggle - everything from core faith teachings to churches' positions on political issues and their influence on societal values.

Still, as the denominations gather for summer conventions, they are trying to hold on to a sense of unity as both sides press for churches to take stands on major issues.

"From a human perspective, we are sorely divided," says the Rev. Joe Rightmyer of the conservative Presbyterians for Renewal. "From a theological perspective, the mind of Christ is not divided. But we as a denomination have simply not heard the mind of Christ clearly."

A stir within the Presbyterian Church (USA), as its General Assembly begins tomorrow in Long Beach, Calif., is a case in point.

Shock waves rippled through the denomination recently after one of its regional governing bodies proposed that the assembly officially recognize "an irreconcilable impasse" in the church between two "mutually exclusive theologies, differing in their understanding of God, humanity, and the church."

Then came another sign of fracture. The Institute for Democracy Studies (IDS) in New York, which studies trends in religious and political groups, reported a "crisis in mainstream Presbyterianism." Its contention: A coalition of conservative groups tied to the religious right is financing a campaign to take over the denomination and end its longstanding commitment to social justice and democratic pluralism. IDS is also preparing reports on Methodist and Episcopal churches.

Conservative Presbyterian leaders say the report is "grossly inaccurate." Liberals in the church call it "eye-opening" and "solid research" and intend to distribute it throughout the church.

Fanning the flames?

Others worry that the report's "alarmist tone" is not helpful.

"They are trying to alert liberals who may be asleep at the switch that those on the extreme right have resources at their command that are probably drawing in evangelicals who don't really have the same agenda that they do," says Peggy Shriver of the National Council of the Churches of Christ. "But let's not polarize the whole church in the process."

Concerned by "walls of hostility" rising up in all mainline churches, Mrs. Shriver and evangelical pastor Richard Hutcheson Jr. wrote "The Divided Church: Moving Liberals and Conservatives from Diatribe to Dialogue."

Shriver emphasizes the need for a "deep theological understanding of differences." At the core are divergent views on biblical authority and interpretation, and on the purpose of the church. Specifically, some say the focus must be on saving souls (evangelism), while others say the church must also work to end societal evils (social justice).

"The division is serious," agrees the Rev. Laird Stuart of the Covenant Network, a liberal group that seeks greater inclusivity in Presbyterian church policy. "The question for us ... is whether there are enough moderate conservatives and moderate liberals to cohere and hold the center."

A recent survey found 47 percent of lay members and 40 percent of pastors characterized themselves as moderates.

The rise of distinct cultures - one of liberalism and the other of evangelism - has tended to compound theological differences. "Among the clergy," says Mr. Stuart, "we have gravitated into different camps.... We read different authors and books and go to different types of conferences." This has even led to some degree to different theological languages.

Renewal or takeover?

Mr. Rightmyer's group belongs to the conservative Presbyterian Coalition, which has its own Declaration of Faith and Strategy Papers, aimed at transforming the denomination. "It's not an attempt to take over the church but see it renewed," he insists.

Critics charge that some of the strategies, such as using the church's judicial commission to seek disciplinary actions and withholding funds from seminaries that include what they call "ideologies alien to the faith," indicate a more aggressive intent.

The weakening of denominational loyalties in American society, and the distress occasioned by years of debate over issues surrounding homosexuality, may make such "subdenominational groups" the wave of the future, some observers say.

Still, efforts are under way to bridge differences within denominations. The Episcopal Church, in the throes of similar tensions, hopes regional meetings on sexuality issues will help reconcile polarized groups.

Presbyterians, meanwhile, are holding conferences on "Unity in the Midst of Diversity." The church's 173 regional governing bodies are being encouraged "to work on whatever issue is most important in their areas, whether it be ordination of homosexuals, racism, or immigration," says project leader Gwen Crawley. The point is not to change minds, but "to understand each other's viewpoints ... and interact positively with people who may never totally share our perspectives but are also the children of God."

Rightmyer says his group is calling for an intercessory prayer network, soliciting some 100,000 Presbyterians to commit "to pray without prejudice" for the "peace, unity, and purity" of the church.

"We are at a tricky and vulnerable time, but actually I am encouraged," Stuart says. The "irreconcilable impasse" overture is being rejected by people on both sides, he says. "After years of avoiding one another, liberals and conservatives are now talking."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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