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A group of area Presbyterians dissatisfied with the Presbyterian Church (USA), which voted last year to allow the ordination of gay ministers, deacons and elders, discussed options Sunday for congregations that believe the governing body has strayed from the religion's traditions.
Members of Concerned Presbyterians of the Low Country, a group comprised of members from several Beaufort County congregations, hosted speakers Sunday afternoon at a Beaufort hotel from the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, who explained potential options for church members who aren't happy with the direction of the PCUSA but aren't sure what to do about it.
A number of theologically conservative Presbyterian churches across the country have criticized the Louisville, Ky.,-based PCUSA, saying it departed from the religion's traditions when it allowed the ordination of gays and lesbians.
Speaker Carmen Fowler LaBerg, president and executive editor of North Carolina-based The Layman, a publication of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, cited the recent vote to allow gay and lesbian ministers and lay leaders. The change gives regional church bodies the ability to decide for themselves.
On Sunday, she told a crowd of about 100 the policy and a lack of "essential standards" in PCUSA will speed its decline. PCUSA has about 2.3 million members in the U.S., according to its website.
"This is a trend we've been walking toward for a number of years. The last year the Presbyterian Church grew was 1967," LaBerg told a crowd of about 100. "It's so much more than sex. Our view of Scripture has been undermined."
The change to the Presbyterian Church constitution modified language in the constitution regarding the "gifts and requirements" of those ordained, whether as clergy or in the lay positions of elder and deacon. Since 1997, the constitution required those seeking ordination to be living "in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." Now, it simply requires church officials to examine "each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation and suitability for the responsibilities of office."
LaBerg, who was once an associate pastor at Providence Presbyterian on Hilton Head Island, estimated that about 10 percent of church members would leave the denomination within the nest three years.
Though LaBerg said congregations throughout the country are leaving PCUSA, she also urged attendees to find a way of working within their churches to promote change. She suggested those disenfranchised with their local church leadership try to take an active role in choosing church leaders.
Church members also have the option of remaining within PCUSA but affiliating with groups such as the Fellowship of Presbyterians, a new denomination comprised of conservative congregations, or breaking away from PCUSA to become full-fledged members of a new denomination, such as the Fellowship or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
Event organizer Wayne Cousar, a member of Beaufort's First Presbyterian Church, said the church is in a "theological crisis."
Leaders at the Beaufort church, which is part of a regional group of 49 churches called the Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery, have agreed with the PCUSA's changes, he said.
Donnie R. Woods, executive presbyter of the Charleston-Atlantic, said he attended Sunday's meeting to better understand church member's grievances. He said members from about 12 area churches attended Sunday's event.
"It's quite clear that people are distressed about the amendment. We have said from day one when it passed that we would be open with our congregations in talking about the law," he said. "We're committed to communication and finding enough common ground to solve our differences. We want to work together to make sure all 49 churches stay together."
First Presbyterian Church of Beaufort member Warren Williamson, who also helped organize the event, said local church leaders need to hear the message that a large group of local members are unhappy with the denomination.
"We want a change back to the biblical standards of our childhood," he said. "We want to be able to have an open discussion with our church leaders."