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SBC faces money, feminist issues

(ran NT LT CT CTI COM CI editions)

Women in missions, Masons and money are on the minds of the nation's 15.2-million Southern Baptists as they prepare to gather here in Houston for their annual meeting.

The gathering Tuesday through Thursday will be the Southern Baptist Convention's first return to the city since 1979 when the then-emerging conservative-fundamentalist movement first revealed its strength in the nation's largest Protestant denomination and elected the Rev. Adrian Rogers, a pastor from Memphis, Tenn., as convention president.

Since then, fundamentalist-conservatives have dominated the convention and inexorably taken control of its boards and agencies, forcing moderates to the sidelines or into alternative institutions such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, formed two years ago.

When the 15,000 to 20,000 messengers, or delegates, gather for their three-day meeting and two nights of multimedia extravaganzas, however, it won't be moderates that are on their mind.

Instead, the most contentious issue among the fractious Baptists is likely to be women, especially women in mission and ministry.

While messengers may take up the question of women pastors and reaffirm their opposition, a more specific controversy revolves around the Women's Missionary Union, an independent auxiliary within the denomination. In its 105-year history, the union has been the cornerstone of mission promotion in a denomination whose identity is intimately linked to missionary zeal at home and overseas.

In January, the executive board of the Women's Missionary Union voted to broaden the scope of its mission education efforts beyond its conventional relationship with the denomination's Home and Foreign Mission boards, agreeing to sell its mission materials to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as well.

For the denomination's conservative leadership, the decision was tantamount to a declaration of disloyalty.

In February, the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee passed a resolution calling on the women's organization to "make clear its singular commitment" to the denomination and to affirm its "exclusive relationship" with its official agencies.

The women's group is scheduled to meet in Houston the two days before the convention gathers. While there are no formal actions pending on the union, the controversy is almost sure to surface during business sessions.

As for women pastors, in 1984, messengers passed a resolution saying women could not be called to the ministry because of their role in the "fall" of humanity into sin in the Garden of Eden, as told in Genesis. A traditional position on that account, one abhorred by feminists, is that Eve served as the temptress leading Adam into sin.

Although the women's issues have been simmering quietly within the denomination, the issue that has garnered the most attention from outside has been the question of whether Baptists could be members of a Masonic lodge.

At last year's meeting, messengers approved a resolution calling for a study of whether Freemasonry was compatible with Christianity and to bring a report and recommendation to this year's convention.

The study, which concluded that certain practices of the Masons were indeed incompatible but recommended the issue be left up to individual members, is scheduled to be debated Wednesday.

In addition, messengers will vote for a second time, as required, on a change in the denomination's bylaws. The proposed new ruling would punish congregations that "affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior" by declaring them ineligible to send messengers to annual meetings.

Hovering behind all of these issues, however, will be money troubles. As giving to the denomination's key budget, the Cooperative Program, has slacked off in recent years, many Southern Baptist agencies face a financial crisis.

A study released in March, for example, found that the percentage of income of all Southern Baptist churches given to the Cooperative Program had dropped for the sixth consecutive year, from more than 10.3 percent in 1987 to just 9.19 percent in 1992.

The shortfalls already have forced layoffs at the Foreign Mission Board and could well result in a downsizing of the denomination's overseas mission effort.

A mission extravaganza proposed by the denomination's president, the Rev. Ed Young, is designed, as he says, to "put some heart and some soul and some real unction into our convention experience."