Two decades ago, the northern United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. merged with the southern Presbyterian Church in the U.S. to form the new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
This church is not be confused with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America or many others inspired by the work of a 16th Century French lawyer named John Calvin.
Presbyterians are good at creating new denominations, assemblies and agencies.
And now they need to do it again, according to Robert L. Howard, a veteran Presbyterian elder in Wichita, Kan. He believes divisions in the 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are so deep that it's time to quit fighting over sex, salvation and the scriptures and get a divorce.
"The more I thought about our denominational family, the more it seemed to me -- as a lawyer -- that what we have become is a dysfunctional family corporation," he said. "What we have to do is sit down and figure out how to divide the family assets and go our separate ways."
Thus, Howard wrote a crisp proposal entitled "Gracious Separation."
It's time, he said, to create a four-year task force to oversee division of property and endowments. Seminary and college trustees would get to vote. Pension funds would be divided in proportion to the number of ministers who affiliate with two new denominations. Finally, local congregations would choose -- via super-majority votes -- which way to go, taking their buildings and assets with them. And so forth and so on.
According to Howard's vision, this would lead to one church "consisting of individuals and congregations committed to the exclusive Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of the scriptures, and the power of the Holy Spirit to actively transform sinners into saints; and the other consisting of individuals and congregations committed to a 'progressive theology' that affirms multiple ways to salvation, the shared authority of scripture and human experience, and the belief that polity can bring unity among sinners and saints who do not share a common understanding of the Gospel."
This has drawn howls of opposition from the progressive national hierarchy, as well as moderate evangelicals. The Rev. Frank Baldwin, stated clerk of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, said he is especially offended by this description of liberal Presbyterian beliefs. It is also na? to think that modern Presbyterians can be sorted into only two simple camps.
"Instead, there are many issues that divide us in various ways, and at different times people line up with those with whom they differ on other matters," said Baldwin, in an online commentary. "We really need each other to think our way through thorny issues. I weep to think of the trauma the plan would cause in all of the particular churches I know if they are forced to choose one or the other of the plan's unpalatable entities. Many members will simply make their exit and leave the rest of us fighting over the bones."
But many are already voting with their feet, said Howard. The churches that became the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have lost a million members since the mid-1960s. And Presbyterians are not the only people wrestling with life-and-death doctrinal issues. Other church lawyers will study Howard's proposal with professional interest.
The Anglican Communion has warned the U.S. Episcopal Church that schism is almost certain if bishop-elect V. Gene Robinson, a noncelibate gay priest, is consecrated on Nov. 2 in New Hampshire. In United Methodism, $1 million in budget cuts have claimed a third of the jobs at the Board of Church and Society. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is downsizing and reorganizing, including closing its Commission for Women.
These are hard times for old-line Protestant executives.
Presbyterians must remember, said Howard, that denominations come and go and it's easy for them to become "false idols." Leaders on both sides are fighting over concrete that is already cracking.
"We already have schism. We already have two churches and may have three or more," he said. "We can't become one body through polity and government, instead of through faith and doctrine. Polity has to serve theology and Christology and mission -- not the other way around."