Amid a furor over a denominational report on human sexuality, about 6,000 members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) will convene next week in Baltimore for the church's 203rd annual General Assembly.
Although members are expected to begin arriving tomorrow, the assembly officially opens Tuesday and concludes June 12. Official business will be debated and voted on by 602 "commissioners," or chosen representatives of the denomination's 2.9 million members.
In the United States and Puerto Rico, there are 11,000 churches and 171 presbyteries of the denomination. About 40,000 Marylanders are church members.
The assembly's agenda includes about 200 "overtures," or bills, to be considered by the commissioners. They will debate the church's official stand on a variety of topics such as health care, sexual misconduct within the church, higher education, racism, child advocacy, a decline in membership, the environment and family violence, as well as theological issues.
A bill can be approved, voted down or tabled. If approved, it is considered for a year by all the presbyteries. If approved by a majority of the presbyteries, the bill becomes church policy.
But other matters on the agenda probably will be overshadowed by the controversial sexuality study prepared by a committee of church leaders and theologians.
Titled "Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice," the 200-page document takes a wide-ranging look at sexual issues, from birth control to sex abuse to homosexuality.
Since its release Feb. 25, the report has raised a furor among critics who perceive an overly liberal content that defies biblical tradition and an arrogant tone that discourages open debate.
For example, the report calls for more sexual freedom among young people, singles and homosexuals.
The sexuality study is scheduled to be discussed June 10.
One of the first pieces of business will be the election Wednesday of a "moderator" who will guide the nine-day gathering and then, for the ensuing year, serve as the titular leader of the denomination.
The two front-runners for the post are the Rev. Herbert Valentine, the head of the Baltimore Presbytery since 1976, and the Rev. William G. Gillespie, pastor of Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.
A third strong candidate, the Rev. John A. Huffman Jr., of Newport Beach, Calif., recently withdrew because his daughter has a serious illness.
Candidates for moderator are nominated by members of their respective presbyteries. Valentine says other candidates may be nominated from the floor.
At each annual assembly, the host presbytery offers support services. For the Baltimore gathering, some 1,600 Maryland volunteers will make signs, provide child care, arrange receptions, put up decorations and greet guests.
Baltimore last was host to a General Assembly in 1976.
The Rev. John Sharp, pastor of Govans Presbyterian Church and the chairman of the committee on local arrangements, says the democratic process of the assembly makes it unique among the conventions of mainline Christian churches.
"At our assemblies, you don't have bishops or a pope overseeing things and having the final word," Sharp says. "Presbyterians aren't asked to put their belief in one leader. Every commissioner, representing his or her presbytery, has a vote
that carries as much weight as anyone else's. It wouldn't be hard for Americans to understand how our church and our General Assembly work."
The moderator of the first General Assembly in 1789, John Witherspoon, was previously a delegate to the Continental Congress. Witherspoon used the Congress as a model for the workings of the Presbyterian Church, Sharp says.
Valentine says, "In our church, we have a collective bishop. Each presbytery is, in a sense, a bishop. It's like a republican form of government, with a small 'r.' "