American Baptist region withdraws, may trigger split in denomination
Date: 09/13/2005 Source: 05-90
By Robert Marus
COVINA, Calif. (ABP) -- In what may be the beginnings of a national split over homosexuality, leaders in a regional group of the American Baptist Churches USA voted Sept. 8 to begin leaving the denomination.
Directors of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest have initiated the process of disassociating from the Pennsylvania-based denomination by the end of the year. Although the vote was taken Sept. 8, the news was not made public until Sept. 13, when a pastor in the region posted Internet versions of the letters he received announcing the news.
In a Sept. 12 letter to the region's pastors and churches, Dale Salico, the region's executive minister, said the Pacific Southwest board "has determined that the time has come to create distance between the ABCPSW and the ABCUSA so that both may move ahead in the mission God has given them without continued conflict."
In an accompanying letter, Brian Scrivens, president of the region's board of directors, said his board took the action "[b]ecause the deep differences of theological convictions and values between the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest and the American Baptist Churches in the USA are understood by the Board of Directors of the ABCPSW as irreconcilable."
The letters were made public by Glenn Layne, pastor of First Baptist Church in Temple City, Calif., on a weblog he runs, called Durable Data. American Baptist officials, contacted for comment Sept. 13, said they were still in the process of preparing a formal response. It was not ready by press time for this story.
Tensions over the issue of homosexuality have come to a head in recent months in the ABC, which counts 1.5 million members in 5,836 churches. Although the group adopted a resolution opposing homosexual conduct in 1992, many conservatives in the denomination have complained ABC leaders have done little to "enforce" it on the denomination's agencies or congregations.
Regional fellowships are the channel through which local congregations relate to the national body. In recent years, several gay-friendly churches have been expelled from some of those regional bodies. The ABC General Board changed the denomination's rules in 1999 to allow churches to join regions outside of their geographical area if the region is willing to accept them.
As a result, many pro-gay ABC churches have joined more progressive regions outside their geographical area. However, some American Baptist conservatives have sought to get rid of that option, thus effectively expelling gay-friendly churches from the ABC.
Several ABC regional bodies issued calls to the national denomination to deal decisively with the issue during its biennial meeting, which took place in July. Some of their leaders said they were left unsatisfied with what they perceived as a lack of sufficient action on the issue.
"I don't think the biennial solved anything, in terms of the future of the denomination," Mike Williams, executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Michigan, said in July.
In addition, the governing board of the ABC Ministers' Council rebuffed an anti-homosexuality measure Aug. 22. It would have required members in good standing to be ministers who believe sexual intimacy is only appropriate in the context of heterosexual marriage.
Most national leaders of the ABC have cited support for traditional Baptist principles of local-church autonomy and the priesthood of every believer, rather than theological support for homosexuality, in opposing such moves.
"We stand at a crossroads," ABC General Secretary Roy Medley told delegates at the biennial meeting, according to the American Baptist News Service. "In our world, the path of radical discipleship -- the path of radical love -- is the road less taken. We dare not choose another. We dare not choose the wrong road ... the road that leads to separation. That choice will certainly unite you with like-minded people but will give you small souls and make you comfortable Christians."
Medley and ABC's national president, Peggy Johnson, met with regional leaders from the Pacific Southwest just prior to their vote to leave the denomination.
"After these meetings the [ABCPSW] board of directors concluded the theological convictions and values of the ABCUSA and the ABCPSW were irreconcilable, and that it was in the best interest of both for the ABCPSW to withdraw from its present standing in the denomination," Scrivens said in his letter.
Ken Pennings, executive director of the pro-gay Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, also was not immediately available for comment Sept. 13.
Dear reader: I posted the letters aware of the intense interest in the matter by American Baptists across the nation. I sincerely regret any complications they may have introduced to the PSW staff, especially my friend, Dale Salico. May God bless and guide us all in this difficult time.--Glenn Layne