Three embattled mainline denominations face critical decisions in 2006 that could lead to dramatic upheavals:
Episcopal Church (ECUSA)
The 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church (ECUSA) is scheduled to vote on whether it will apologize and repent for consecrating an openly gay bishop in 2003, as many top archbishops from the rest of the international Anglican Communion have demanded. ECUSA leaders, already banned from Anglicanism's chief policy-making body and disfellowshipped by many of the Communion's archbishops, have served notice they will not agree that what they did was wrong.
Enshrining that position in a vote at the 2006 General Convention this summer would most certainly lead to a breakup of the Communion into affluent minority liberal and underfunded majority conservative alliances within two years (at the next worldwide Anglican Lambeth Conference in 2008). In that scenario, many conservative ECUSA dioceses and churches would be named by the majority to replace ECUSA as the authentic Anglican presence in America. The legal haggling could go on for years.
ECUSA leaders, with help from their allies in the Archbishop of Canterbury's bureaucracy in London, are expected to try to win the day with double-speak: Apologize for all the controversy (but not for causing it), and express regret for not consulting with other Communion leaders before proceeding (not that it would have meant any difference). "Not good enough," key global south archbishops have warned in advance.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will vote on a measure in June that would, in effect, negate the church constitution's fidelity/chastity standard for PCUSA clergy. It would allow certain exceptions to the standard for conscience reasons. A PCUSA commission drew up the proposal. Many PCUSA leaders have voiced support. If the assembly adopts it, and a majority of presbyteries (regional units) ratify it, the 2.3-million-member denomination will see a major exodus.
American Baptist Churches (U.S.A.)
American Baptist Churches (U.S.A.) will fracture. The 1.5-million-member denomination, based in Valley Forge, Pa., has a strong position on homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture. But its liberal-dominated governing board has blocked all efforts to enforce the policy on member churches on grounds Baptist churches are autonomous, don't have creeds, and have the right to interpret the Bible as they wish. The board also has allowed gay-approving churches to transfer from predominantly conservative regional units to gay-friendly ones in a different geographic area.
The ABC's Southern California--based Pacific Southwest region, with 300 mostly conservative churches in three states, is scheduled to vote in April on whether to proceed with plans to pull out of the denomination. Several other regions are poised to do likewise if the board continues to balk at discipline of congregations. The financially strapped ABC would be hard-pressed to survive. It already has cut staff to bare bones, and it rents out most of its headquarters to private firms. A large chunk of its membership is dually aligned with black denominations or the pro-gay United Church of Christ, and this shows in financial loyalties.
The Northern California--based American Baptist Churches of the West, which has kicked out several pro-gay churches from membership, changed its name as of Jan. 1. The region's new name is Growing Healthy Churches-"a move to reflect more accurately who we are as well as losing any negative baggage that may be detrimental to the accomplishment of a mission," said executive minister Paul Borden.
Leaders of American Baptist Evangelicals, organized as a renewal group in 1982, recently declared the ABC is beyond renewal. They voted to become a support group for whatever new entity emerges from the ruins of Valley Forge this year.