The denominational conventions held so far this summer have signaled both revived conflicts and new directions among U.S. church bodies.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues on a course of conflict after its recent General Assembly. In the last few years, liberals claimed they were being shut out of the church through legislation that prohibited same-sex unions and the ordination of homosexuals. After the June assembly, it was the conservatives who were claiming a “liberal takeover,” according to an article in the conservative Presbyterian Layman (July).
The assembly voted to lift the ban on ordaining gays and lesbians. The legislation will not go into effect until local presbyteries vote on the proposal next year. The newspaper notes that equally or even more disconcerting to evangelicals and other conservatives is the assembly’s adoption of a statement that says Jesus is “uniquely Savior,” while stopping short of affirming that he is alone “Lord of all.” One delegate who voted for the new statement said an alternate statement affirming the singular saving work of Christ was “exclusionary . . .”
The end of the 61st regular convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, held in St. Louis from July 14-20, found partisans on all sides in the highly politicized church body declaring partial victory. In the words of one delegate, “it was a decidedly mixed bag.” Due to the death of its highly conservative president, A. L. Barry, in March, the most contested part of the convention was the election of a new leader.
Delegates elected Rev. Gerald B. Kieschnick, president of the synod’s Texas District, chair of its Commission on Theology and Church Relations, and a moderate, to a three-year term as president. Kieschnick defeated the more conservative Dr. Dean Wenthe, president of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, on the fourth ballot.
By far the most contentious action of the convention came with passage by a vote of 706-343 to affirm the judgment of the late president Barry that the 5.2 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] “cannot be considered an orthodox Lutheran church body” due to its acceptance of altar and pulpit fellowship with Reformed churches, Episcopalians, and Moravians.
Additional controversy was provoked by the comments of outgoing president Robert T. Kuhn, who complained of “noisy minorities, both to the right and the left,” in a synod that he believed was “far more united than it is divided.” Post-convention reality questions Kuhn’s analysis, as the various political camps in Missouri each claim cautionary victory and begin to lay plans regarding the future direction of the synod.
Meanwhile, one segment of Eastern Orthodoxy has moved one step further to creating a unified and independent Eastern Orthodox church. The Los Angeles Times (July 28) reports that at its conventionin late July, the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America petitioned the Patriarch of the Holy Synod of Antioch to become an autonomous church body. It is not clear if the patriarch will accept the petition; it took the Russian Orthodox Church 140 years to win autonomy from the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Although the Antiochian church would not become fully independent under the declaration (the Patriarch of Antioch would still have final word on electing its top bishop), observers say the action is likely to move other North American Orthodox bodies that are still considered diaspora branches of the mother church in the new direction, such as the Greek Orthodox Church.
(Presbyterian Layman, P.O. Box 2210, Lenoir, NC 28645-2210)
— Mary Todd, assistant professor of History at Concordia University, wrote the section on the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Todd is author of “Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod” (Eerdmans)