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Conservative Presbyterians fault leaders, urge reforms

Claim failure to proclaim Christ as humanity's savior

Thursday, May 03, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

About 130 theologically conservative Presbyterian pastors and elders gathered yesterday in Peters to call for the grass-roots reformation of the 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA), whose national leadership they believe has failed to proclaim that Christ is the sole savior of humanity.

Local and national leaders of the group said they did not want a schism but wanted congregations and presbyteries to proclaim the historic Christian faith no matter what happened at church headquarters.

"Any church that leaves the denomination, or acts unilaterally, weakens the rest of us," said the Rev. Douglas Pratt, a leader of the group, pastor of Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in McCandless and the immediate past president of the council of Pittsburgh Presbytery.

"We are obviously concerned about events and trends in our denomination. ... But we are not angry, and we have not gathered here to gripe or complain or vent frustration to one another."

The network has no name or formal structure, although it has met for two years. Yesterday's meeting at Center Presbyterian Church drew pastors from some of the largest churches in the Pittsburgh Presbytery and participants from eight presbyteries in Western Pennsylvania.

The Rev. Richard Wolling, pastor of Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon gave a brief presentation on a proposal to have Pittsburgh Presbytery declare that it will not allow same-sex blessing ceremonies. However, some speakers and most workshops focused on spiritual renewal and pastoral care rather than church politics.

About 35 people attended a reform strategies workshop by the Rev. Robert Davis of San Marcos, Calif., executive director of the Presbyterian Forum. He spoke extensively on what is now called the Confessing Church Movement. It began in March in Beaver-Butler Presbytery after Summit Presbyterian Church in Jefferson, Butler County, persuaded the presbytery to adopt a confession in faith in Christ as savior, in the authority of scripture and in the teaching that sex is only appropriate within heterosexual marriage.

The Rev. Paul Roberts, pastor of Summit, said he gets calls daily from congregations around the country asking how to do what his church did. Word of the action was spread via the Web site and newspaper of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a conservative activist group. To date, 49 churches have joined the movement and 66 are in the process, representing a total of 80,000 Presbyterians.

The name Confessing Church Movement is controversial because it was used by an underground Protestant church in Nazi Germany that refused to accept Hitler's demand for a "German Christian" church that would remove all references to Jews and Judaism from the faith. In an interview, Davis said he was not suggesting that theologically liberal Presbyterians were equivalent to Nazis.

"This is about articulating what we believe in an environment that is hostile to the confession of faith," he said.

Although the movement began soon after the nation's presbyteries rejected a proposed ban on same-sex blessing ceremonies, both Davis and Roberts insisted that sexuality issues are not the driving force of the Confessing Church Movement. They said they were far more disturbed that top denominational officials had refused to discipline staff members who organized a peacemaking conference last year at which a speaker said that Christ was only one of many paths to salvation.

"I don't think the denomination will split over sexuality. It will split over what we say about the person and work of Jesus Christ," Davis said.

He accused the General Assembly Council, which governs the denomination between its annual General Assemblies, of trying to turn the church into a university in which all claims of the faith were up for debate.

"There is a grave disconnect between what happens in the congregation and what happens in the institution," Davis said.

When he asked how many of those in his workshop felt alienated from the programs and policies of the national church, every hand went up. When he asked how many found the literature and educational materials of the denomination helpful in their ministry and mission, no hands went up.

In the past, conservative Presbyterians have made the mistake of trying to change the denomination by changing the top leadership, which led to schisms, he said. The Confessing Movement seeks to reform the denomination through action on the grassroots level.

The group meeting in Peters "is not concerned about taking over the denomination. They are concerned about being the church here, in this place," he said.

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