Feathers are flying in the 2.5-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). For months, some conservatives have pressed for an unprecedented special session of the General Assembly, the church's top governing body, to deal with continuing defiance of the PCUSA's constitutional ban on homosexual clergy by some presbyteries and churches. Last week their recall effort was dealt a severe setback.
To recall last year's 214th assembly back into special session, they needed to present petitions signed by at least 50 commissioners (delegates)-pastors and elders-of the 554 who participated. On Jan. 14, physician Alexander Metherell of Newport Beach delivered 57 signatures to PCUSA headquarters in Louisville (26 pastors, 31 elders). He asked officials to schedule the assembly in 60 days, as per church rules.
But Dr. Metherell ran into problems with the church bureaucracy almost immediately. The officials said they would have to contact each signer first and verify the signatures. Citing a section of the rules that doesn't seem to apply, they insisted that 120 days was the minimum notice required for a special assembly. That means it would be held within days of the 215th annual assembly in May in Denver.
Using similar arguments, the church's top elected official, Moderator Fahed Abu-Akel, an Atlanta pastor, wrote letters to the signers, imploring them to change their minds. Finally, he announced on Jan. 27 that he would not call the special assembly. Six pastors and seven elders had withdrawn their signatures, he said. But, he promised, the issue raised by the petitioners is on the agenda for the May assembly.
Dr. Metherell and others were furious. They said the officials had no right to interfere with the process and "intimidate" the signers, and the rules don't permit signatures to be withdrawn once petitions are presented. The session of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Canton, Ohio, filed a complaint with the PCUSA's highest court. It asked the court to order church officials to stop interfering and to call the 214th assembly into special session not more than 60 days hence.
The conservative Presbyterian Layman pointed out ruefully that neither the moderator nor the PCUSA's top executive, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, had written letters "imploring" defiant church officers to mend their ways.