While no one's expecting the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) meeting to generate the kind of headlines coming from the Southern Baptists, the denomination is split over the issue of human sexuality as commissioners gather here for their General Assembly.
"Presbyterians remain deeply divided on the issue of whether to ordain gays and lesbians," said Rev. John Buchanan, former moderator of the 2.7 million-member denomination.Buchanan, pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, is one of several church leaders who recently called for a moratorium on legislative and judicial measures dealing with human sexuality at the annual meeting, which opens Saturday.
"We're asking for everyone to take a step back," he said in an interview Thursday. "It doesn't mean anyone should give up their convictions. I'm not going to give up mine."
The 20-year theological debate over human sexuality is expected to dominate the hundreds of business items that will come before the 562 commissioners during the 210th General Assembly, which runs until June 20.
The General Assembly also will elect a new moderator.
Three candidates have entered the race: Rev. Douglas Oldenburg, president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.; Rev. James Mead, pastor of University Place Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Wash.; and Rev. Richard Hutchison, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Ind.
The election is Saturday evening.
While commissioners will consider many issues, one topic has been foremost for the last two years. Even a call for a respite in the bitter debate is controversial.
Rev. Laurene Lafontaine, a Colorado minister and leader in the denomination's gay and lesbian movement, said any effort to cut off debate amounts to censorship.
"It's like saying: `We don't want to talk about it and we don't want you to either,' " she said.
"The right wing wants to shut down debate because progress is being made," she said. "The church is scared of all this because it means people have to change. It means the acceptance of gays and lesbians."
In March, the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination rejected a proposal to overturn a 10-month-old church law that effectively bars ordination of openly practicing homosexuals.
The controversial Amendment B, adopted last June, states that any person ordained as a minister, elder or deacon must refrain from sexual activity outside marriage.
In a series of votes since October, a majority of the church's regional bodies turned down a broader statement, called Amendment A, which would have asked ministers, elders and deacons to "demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness and in all relationships of life."
Parker Williamson, editor of the conservative-leaning Presbyterian Layman magazine, said there is no organized effort to censor the left wing. Church members are "weary from fighting," he said.
"They don't want controversy," Williamson said. "They hope this (General Assembly) will be a non-event."
Still, he called the plea for a moratorium on initiatives dealing with the topic of human sexuality or any other subject a "tricky issue."
"One General Assembly can't bind the hands of future General Assemblies," he said. "I believe the call for a moratorium would have broad support, but it won't mean anything."
Buchanan said he did not anticipate the moratorium request to be put before the commissioners for a vote. Instead, he called it "moral persuasion."
"All of this controversy has been destructive," said Buchanan, co-moderator of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which spearheaded the unsuccessful try to soften Amendment B's language. "It keeps driving a wedge in. Let's stop doing that."