Attempts to censure the controversial Presbyterian Lay Committee failed at the Presbyterian General Assembly in July, but the annual gathering did vote to "rebuke all divisive people and groups."

Commissioners to the annual Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA) General Assembly defused a showdown between the conservative lay group and church leaders by "means of a conciliatory call to repentance and forgiveness."

The Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC) publishes the 520,000-circulation Presbyterian Layman and has been a persistent critic of the denomination's headquarters staff.

At last year's meeting, feminist theology took center stage. The denomination acknowledged that the 1993 Re-Imagining conference featuring worship of Sophia exceeded Reformed theology boundaries. PCUSA funds had supported the event. The Layman said Re-Imagining is symbolic of PCUSA straying from biblical roots.

Last fall, moderator Robert Bohl appointed a nine-member committee to engage in dialogue with eight members of the PLC to resolve the ongoing conflict. But negotiations broke down in March, and the committee said the lay group had "chosen repeatedly to subvert the process of reconciliation."

The moderator's appointees said that the Layman's "ad hominem attacks on elected and appointed offices and officials" frequently undermines the denomination's work. The panel said repeated personal attacks "exceed the bounds of Christian conduct."

The moderator's appointees labeled the Layman's Re-Imagining reporting "irresponsible" and suggested the general assembly enact guidelines to control the bimonthly newspaper.

In March, the PLC submitted an "Honoring the Boundaries of Reformed Faith and Practice" paper that would have required, among other things, PCUSA national staff to take a loyalty oath to Presbyterian standards of ordination and also withdrawn most PCUSA contributions to the National Council of Churches. But Bohl's committee rejected the proposal.

In May, PLC chair Warren Reding sent a letter to all of the denomination's regional governing bodies, reiterating the need for such action. Bohl's committee responded that the PLC "cease and desist from its destructive activities."

ASSEMBLY ACTION: With such a controversial background, the general assembly could have been explosive. But a reconciliation committee, meeting during the assembly, opted to create its own report rather than adopt recommendations of the nine-member special committee.

Ultimately, a conciliatory motion passed by a 517-to-20 vote to "call all Presbyterians to repentance and forgiveness, and rebuke all divisive people and groups" in the church. "The Assembly Committee on the Report on Reconciliation has been deliberately brief and obviously nonpunitive, and intends that the assembly shall not take up the topic again" the resolution concluded.

Still, Bohl, in an address to the assembly, insisted that the PLC be more civil in communications. "The way they publish their paper has hurt individuals," Bohl declared. Several attempts to censure the Layman failed when stated clerk James Andrews pointed out that it is not under the church's jurisdiction.

New moderator Marj Carpenter established a healing tone at the beginning of the six-day event. "I pray that we cease and desist from ripping the church apart," said Carpenter, 68, who retired two years ago as manager of Presbyterian News Service.

PLC members believe the vote indicates that their calls for accountability are being heard. They are encouraged that a resolution declaring "theology really does matter by laying these difficult and even painful issues on the table and dealing with them constructively" passed with only five objections.

"The assembly set aside some very harsh criticism of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and some recommendations that were attempts to silence us," Parker Williamson, Layman executive editor, told CT.

ACCOUNTABILITY: In other action at the assembly, an attempt to strip the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association (PHEWA) of its denominational support failed 59 to 40 percent. While PHEWA has official denominational connections, it is a free-standing umbrella organization composed of various specific ministries that lobby for finances and policy changes on topics such as AIDS and "reproductive choice."

Yet, commissioners did vote 265 to 258 to review PHEWA activities for the past three years, monitor PHEWA activities during the next year, and report to next year's general assembly.

Commissioners questioned specifics about the finances of the agency, but PHEWA officials would say little more than that PHEWA is a nonprofit organization created by the general assembly. Critics said the group receives $240,000 a year in denominational funds for staff and office space at the denomination's Louisville, Kentucky, headquarters. Conservatives contend that PHEWA should not be subsidized because the agency opposes the denomination's official stance on issues such as the ordination of homosexuals.

KOREAN UNITY: A delegation of 50 Koreans, including Presbyterian moderators from both North and South, attended the assembly and expressed hope for reunification of the country divided since 1950. While 5 million Presbyterians worship freely in South Korea, Christianity is repressed by the Marxist government of North Korea.

In a moving ceremony, representatives from the adjacent countries joined sticks to form a cross of reunification.


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