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Gathering storm

Religion | Next month's general assembly could break apart the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Issue: "A few good men," May 6, 2006

Depending on a vote at next month's biannual general assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Birmingham, Ala., the controversy-torn 2.3-million-member denomination could break apart. Delegates are to act on a multi-part proposal dealing with "Peace, Unity, and Purity" in the denomination. One section, if adopted, would establish a new "authoritative interpretation" of church rules to permit exceptions to moral standards for ordination. It's about accommodating active gays on a local case-by-case basis.

Just weeks ahead of the assembly, 35 pastors of some of the largest churches in the PCUSA issued a statement of "deep concern" about the "local option" exceptions. It contained a veiled warning of a split.

"We grieve the continuing decline of our denomination on multiple levels. Something is deeply flawed at the core," they declared. "While longing to retain our unity, we are ready for a redefinition of that unity and the structural realities that hold us together. God help us."

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Ten of the churches are among the PCUSA's 15 largest and have memberships that range from more than 4,000 to nearly 8,000; average overall is about 3,000.

Yuri's faith

Professor Valentin Petrov at Russia's air force academy wants to set the record straight about the late Soviet cosmonaut, Col. Yuri Gagarin, the first person to travel in space (in 1961). He said Mr. Gagarin, who died in a plane crash in 1968, was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church and was a believer whose roots strongly influenced him.

The international media widely quoted him later as having said from orbit, "I don't see any god up here." It caused an uproar in the United States. However, there are no such words in the full verbatim record of his conversations during the space flight. The words reportedly came from a game in which the flight was discussed by a character named Snake Eater. Snake had the cosmonaut say, "The earth was blue, and there was no god."

Bulletin Board

Megachurches are still multiplying, according to the latest research by the Leadership Network and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The figures for 2005 show at least 1,200 U.S. Protestant churches with an average weekly attendance of over 2,000-nearly double the number in 2000. They attract nearly 4.4 million people to weekly services, with an overall average of more than 3,500 weekly-a 57 percent increase over 2000's figures.

Public schools cannot censor the religious viewpoints of students in class assignments. That is what three federal appeals courts have ruled in recent lawsuits. The latest one was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the high court on April 24 let the 2nd Circuit's decision stand. The case involved a boy in kindergarten in Syracuse, N.Y., who in an art poster on the environment depicted Jesus-without naming Him-with children holding hands, and people picking up garbage and recycling trash. In a display of posters, school officials folded over the left side of the boy's poster to hide the Jesus depiction.

The Russian Orthodox Church broke off bilateral contacts with the Church of Sweden after that Lutheran denomination voted to allow for the blessing of same-sex partnerships. A Swedish church official said she regrets the ROC decision to take a "time-out" in talks, and she hopes they can be resumed soon.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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