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Presbyterian ‘breakaway’ groups signal ‘seismic shift’?comment (0)

March 22, 2012


There’s a popular saying in church-planting circles: It’s easier to make babies than to raise the dead.

That principle applies to denominations as well, said Paul Detterman, who helped found the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) in January.

“We thought it was easier in the long run to create something new rather than to keep on trying to modify existing forms,” he said.

The “existing form,” in Detterman’s case, was the Presbyterian Church (USA), which remains the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination despite a decades-long plunge in membership.

The ECO may steepen that decline. Thousands of conservative Presbyterians, upset over the PC (USA)’s vote to lift its ban on partnered gay and lesbian clergy last year, are eyeing the new group. Planning for the ECO, which will not ordain sexually active gays and lesbians, preceded the gay clergy vote, Detterman said.

The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) formed in late 2008, five years after the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. In 2010, a year after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to allow partnered gay and lesbian clergy, conservatives formed the North American Lutheran Church.

The question now is whether these breakaway groups signal a seismic shift in American Protestantism, or just a few fissures in the theological terrain.

Leaders of all three new denominations say the gay clergy issue was only the breaking point for conservatives, after years of dissatisfaction with overbearing bureaucracies, membership losses and liberal theology. 

“When orthodox and conservative Christians made homosexuality their flash-point issue, and they lost those struggles, in many ways they had no choice but to create these new structures,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute for Religion & Democracy, a Washington-based advocacy group.

In some ways, the rifts are nothing new. American Protestants have been splintering since Roger Williams left Plymouth Colony in the 1630s, said Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University.

“What we may be experiencing at this point is the limit of that movement to draw a lot of diversity under one umbrella,” said Ammerman, author of “Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners.”

Archbishop Robert Duncan, ACNA’s leader, said the new denominations herald a burgeoning movement.

“There is a Reformation going on in the Christian church, particularly in the West, and particularly in the mainline Protestant denominations,” he said. Duncan’s ACNA seeks to supplant the Episcopal Church as the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

But some religion scholars say the new denominations are heading down a demographic dead end unless they can broaden their appeal beyond conservatives upset over pro-gay church policies.

“Public opinion about gays and lesbians and gay marriage are changing so dramatically that at some point in the future — 10 years, let’s say — it’s not going to matter very much,” said Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.

Wuthnow and other scholars say American Protestantism provides fertile ground for offshoots, with the membership losses often encouraging the outgrowth.

“People worry that they may be on the wrong track and decide to start something new,” Wuthnow said.

The Episcopal Church, ELCA and PC (USA) have lost members for years, as have many North American denominations, conservative and liberal alike. 

The Anglican Church in North America counts 719 member congregations; the Episcopal Church has more than 7,000. The North American Lutheran Church counts about 300 congregations, compared to the ELCA’s nearly 10,500. The ECO is just getting off the ground, while the PC (USA) has more than 11,000 churches.

“The size is not as important to me as the faithfulness of what we’ve been challenged to do and to be in terms of our identity,” said NALC’s Bishop John Bradosky. 

(RNS)

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