ATLANTA -- Teetering on the brink of forming a new denomination, 6,000 disaffected Southern Baptists set up an organization yesterday that will enable them to operate independently of the conservative leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The three-day meeting here was planned last August. It gave the new group, which will be called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a chance to define more sharply what holds them together beyond the frequently expressed sentiment of being excluded from decisions in the convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination.
Most of the members of the disaffected group are moderates who reject a literal reading of the Bible and other conservative tenets, such as a bar on the ordination of women.
Delegates here said the fellowship would be a kind of organizational and spiritual anchor for alternatives to the major denominational programs in areas like missionary work, educational materials, publications and seminaries.
Although the new organization could provide the skeleton for a new denomination, many leaders at the gathering here said its establishment did not mean a breakup of the 14-million-member denomination.
The Rev. Daniel G. Vestal, the pastor of Dunwoody Baptist Church in Atlanta, who headed the steering committee that organized the meeting, said there were "legitimate differences" among the organizers about their relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Rev. John H. Hewett, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C., was elected yesterday to head the fellowship. He said individual Baptist churches, which are self-governing, would now have "one more choice" in deciding how to direct their
money or where to seek educational materials.
Conservatives have won the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention for the past 12 years and have steadily used the president's power of appointments to reshape the boards of agencies and seminaries in their own image.
The conservatives demand strict adherence to their view that the Bible is completely true scientifically and historically as well as religiously.
An "Address to the Public" read at the opening session on Thursday evening outlined the points separating the fellowship from the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The group is setting up a Missions Center Task Force to promote domestic and overseas missionary work that the fellowship believes is neglected by the convention. It is also developing working relationships with the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, a liberal group that has lost convention support, and with Associated Baptist Press, an alternative denominational news service created after conservatives took control of the official Baptist Press.
The fellowship will also have links with the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and a new divinity school being planned by Baylor University in Waco, Texas.