American Baptists withdraw over gay issue
By Adelle Banks
Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS)--A California-based group of churches has announced plans to begin the process of withdrawing from the American Baptist Churches USA, bringing the denomination closer to a possible split over an ongoing debate about homosexuality.
The divide between American Baptists and local-church bodies appears to be growing wider with the action taken by the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest, which national church leaders said makes them "profoundly saddened."
About the same time, executives of the West Virginia Baptist Convention appointed a special team to consider "facts and options" concerning its relationship with the Valley Forge, Pa.-based denomination.
More actions related to the denomination's stance on homosexuality are expected at meetings at various levels throughout the fall.
During its biennial meeting this summer, General Secretary Roy Medley said the divisions over homosexuality could lead to either separation or "shared ministry and mission" in a denomination that includes both conservatives opposed to inclusion of practicing homosexuals and more liberal congregations that officially welcome gays and lesbians.
"The issue of homosexuality has brought us as a denomination to a crossroad in our life together," Medley told the assembly.
The resolution approved by the Pacific Southwest regional board states that "a process to withdraw" should begin because the "deep differences" are considered by the board to be "irreconcilable."
The regional group's board believes the denomination has not enforced a resolution that states "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
In a letter to pastors and congregations in the Pacific Southwest region, board President Brian Scrivens said the decision to pursue withdrawal came after meetings with top leaders of the denomination.
The regional group includes 300 churches in Southern California, southern Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii.
The denomination's General Board Executive Committee responded to the action during its recent meeting in Atlanta.
"We grieve and are profoundly saddened by the decision of the board of directors of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest 'to initiate the process to withdraw from the Covenant of Relationships,'" a statement ap-proved by the executive committee said.
"This decision will separate the region from the American Baptist family and our mission if the region completes its action." The executive committee noted that while the denomination has issued statements and resolutions affirming heterosexual marriage and the "importance of biblical authority," it cannot determine the actions of local congregations.
"The General Board ... does not set policy for local congregations on theological or other issues," it said. "We are not hierarchical or episcopal because we are a denominational family related by a series of voluntary covenantal relationships among autonomous congregations to partner together in mission."
The committee said individual churches within the western region would remain affiliated with the denomination unless each congregation held a separate vote to leave.
At the same time the Pacific Southwest leaders took a definitive step toward separation, church leaders in West Virginia began a more exploratory process.
Leaders of the West Virginia Baptist Convention appointed a working group to consider such issues as necessary legal procedures to change the convention's status with the denomination and "possible arrangements for continuing relationships with like-minded regions of the ABC/USA and with missionaries."John Simmons, minister of mission support for the 467 churches in the West Virginia group, said some churches have signed resolutions saying "they want something to change" or they will consider dropping financial support or affiliation with the denomination.