First Presbyterian of Orlando leads churches breaking away from denomination
"Religion and politics inevitably get intertwined," said Nancy Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University. "I think you are seeing a very similar polarizing dynamic in religious organizations that probably originates within the political arena."
Any loss of Presbyterian churches to the Fellowship would be harmful to PC(USA) in terms of members, money and influence, Wheeler said.
"It's damaging to the larger denomination. It's damaging to morale, and damaging in some sense to our power, and financially damaging," she said.
But the denomination survived when conservative congregations created Presbyterian Church of America in 1973 and Evangelical Presbyterian Church in 1981. With 10,000 churches, PC(USA) will weather this rift as well, said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, Clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly in Louisville, Ky.
"We have gone through this before in the life of the church," Parsons said. "I'm always sad when people leave the denomination. We are better witnesses together and more effective witnesses together."
Swanson says the differences between the PC(USA) and Fellowship churches go beyond the ordination of gays to such basic doctrines as the belief in Christ as the only salvation. Yet it was the ordination of gays that became the defining moment that prompted the split.
"What a lot of churches feel like is that the denomination has left them more than they are leaving the denomination," he said. "We are really looking forward not to fighting the same battle we've been fighting for 30 years."