Teetering on the brink of forming a new denomination, 6,000 disaffected Southern Baptists set up an organization Saturday that will allow them to operate independently of the conservative leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The three-day meeting here, which was planned last August, gave the new group, which will be called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a chance to define more sharply what holds them together beyond the frequently voiced sentiment of being shut out of the decisions in the Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination.Most of the members of the disaffected group are moderates who reject a literal reading of the Bible and other conservative tenets, like a bar on the ordaining of women.
Delegates here said the fellowship would be a kind of organizational and spiritual anchor for alternatives to the major denominational programs in areas like missionary work, educational materials, publications and seminaries.
Although the new organization could provide the skeleton for a new denomination, many leaders at the gathering here said its establishment did not mean a breakup of the 14 million-member Southern Baptist Convention.
The Rev. Daniel G. Vestal, the pastor of Dunwoody Baptist Church here who headed the steering committee that organized the meeting, said there were legitimate differences among the organizers about their relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention.
Dr. Walter Shurden, a church historian at Mercer University here, said, "People are at various stages of their relationship with the Southern Baptist Conventions. The train is in the station and the whistle is blowing. Some people are ready to leave and some people are already down the road and you've got to pick them up if you get that far, and some people haven't come to the station yet."
The Rev. John H. Hewett, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C., was elected to head the fellowship. He said individual Baptist churches, which are self-governing, now would have "one more choice among a plethora of choices" in deciding how to direct their money or where to seek educational materials.
Conservatives have won the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention for the past 12 years and have steadily used the president's power of appointments to reshape the boards of denominational agencies and seminaries in their own image.
The conservatives demand strict adherence to their their view that the Bible is completely true scientifically and historically as well as religiously. This view of "inerrancy" takes literally, for example, the account of the creation in six days and Jonah's sojourn in the belly of a fish.
The gathering here drew twice as many Baptists as a preliminary meeting held in Atlanta last August.