The denominational conventions held so far this summer have not yielded dramatic results. But elections in the Episcopal and Southern Baptist bodies and rulings passed in the Presbyterian Church (USA) do signal shifts and impasses that will likely become more visible in the months ahead.
The choice of Katherine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church during the denomination’s June convention may worsen –and could even splinter –the already difficult relations between the American denomination and fellow Anglicans abroad. Episcopalians have been in conflict with many in the other 37 Anglican provinces since electing a gay bishop two years ago. A female leader adds a new layer of complexity to the already troubled relationship, especially since not many women have been elected bishops (including in the Church of England).
Schori has been a strong supporter of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop. During the convention, the denominational delegates rejected a moratorium on making further controversial appointments; already, Newark has a gay candidate for bishop, reports the New York Times (July 2). The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has attempted to limit the autonomy of national Anglican churches and proposed creating various levels of fellowship to keep the Anglican communion together. But that may be too late for conservative churches; six traditionalist dioceses and several parishes are planning to split from the church.
Controversy over homosexuality also continues to roil the Presbyterian Church (U.SA.), but the national assembly voted to create some leeway for gay clergy and lay officers to serve local congregations, despite a denominational ban on partnered gay ministers. The Philadelphia Inquirer(June 6) reports that a measure approved 298-221 by the national assembly keeps in place a church law that says clergy and lay elders and deacons must limit sexual relations to man-woman marriage. But the new legislation allows local congregations and regional presbyteries to exercise some flexibility when choosing clergy and lay officers of local congregations if sexual orientation or other issues arise.
The decision concluded a long battle between liberals and conservatives in the 2.3-million-member denomination. Conservatives lost two last-ditch efforts to kill or delay the measure. The Presbyterian establishment, including all seminary presidents and many officials, promoted the flexibility plan, which was devised by a special task force. The idea is to grant modest change to liberals but mollify conservatives by keeping the sexual law on the books. Thirteen evangelical caucuses issued a joint statement that the assembly’s actions “throw our denomination into crisis.”
Controversial issues did not play much of a role at the Southern Baptist meeting in mid-June, but the election of a new president may set a different tone for the 16 million member church body, according to reports. The new president, Frank S. Page, is the pastor of a megachurch in Taylors, S.C. He told delegates that the SBC needs to engage more of its members and show the country more about what the Southern Baptists are for rather than what they are against. Page did not disavow the conservative social positions the convention has championed, but it will be interesting to see if the more positive, culturally relevant leadership style of this mega church pastor will serve, in the words of the New York Times(June 14), as a “turning point” for the denomination.