The Presbyterian Church (USA) this week took a major step toward symbolic unity with eight other Protestant denominations.
After heated debate over how the plan would affect church governance and leadership, delegates at the 205th General Assembly voted 334-166 to join a plan that would create a "Church of Christ Uniting" proposed by the ecumenical Consultation on Church Union.
Under the plan, each participating denomination would keep its internal governing structure and ordination process, but form "covenanting" councils. The councils would allow ministers in the member denominations to be mutually recognized so the churches could conduct common worship services. The plan also would foster ecumenical mission work.
"There is nothing of merger in this proposal," said David Taylor, general secretary of the Consultation on Church Union. "But there is everything of removing old barriers to full ecclesiastical fellowship."
The document approved by the Presbyterians is a blueprint for a covenanting relationship. The General Assembly and local presbyteries still must work out details for implementing the plan.
One of the major objections among some delegates was that oversight councils will have officers called "bishops," a position that doesn't exist in the Presbyterian church. Questions also arose over how the plan would affect the role of lay leaders, who have a high degree of authority in the church.
The church's Committee on Catholicity and Interfaith Relations, which recommended approval of the plan, sought to assure delegates that bishops would have only a pastoral role and that governance would remain with local, regional and national church authorities.
The Consultation on Church Union is made up of representatives of the Presbyterian (USA), African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Methodist Episcopal, Episcopal, International Council of Community Churches, United Church of Christ and United Methodist denominations.
All participating churches are scheduled to vote on the plan by 1998. Besides the Presbyterian Church (USA), the African Methodist Episcopal and International Council of Community Churches have approved it.
In other Presbyterian General Assembly business, delegates approved a restructuring and downsizing that will save the national church some $7-million on its 1994 budget and reduce staff at the Louisville headquarters by about 25 percent. The church has been running a deficit, and non-earmarked savings are expected to be gone by the end of this year.
As part of the restructuring, nine ministry units will be combined into three divisions.
The assembly also passed a host of social policy resolutions, including ones endorsing a universal health-care system for the United States, a statement on drug use and dependency, and a call for Presbyterians to "join in condemnation of immorality" communicated in the media.
Stated Clerk James Andrews said the Presbyterian Church (USA) had 2,780,406 members at the end of 1992, down 37,000 from 1991 and a loss of one-third of the membership since the 1983 reunion of the southern and northern branches of Presbyterianism that formed the present church.
Andrew said the church has experienced a rise in Sunday school attendance and professions of faith since 1988, trends that he believes "outline the future."