Presbyterians have full agenda, but study is likely to dominate debate.


June 05, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff Joe Nawrozki contributed to this story.

The Rev. Herbert D. Valentine, executive of the Baltimore Presbytery, today was elected moderator of the 203rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at its national meeting in Baltimore.

As moderator, Valentine will serve for the coming year as leader of the denomination.

Valentine was elected on the second ballot, winning the necessary majority of 51.26 percent over the Rev. J. Howard Edington of Orlando, Fla., and the Rev. William H. Gillespie of St. Louis.

In his speech to the assembly at the Convention Center after his election, Valentine said, "I am very humbled and very surprised. I'm sure my seminary professors are shaking their heads at this moment. If you see a turtle on top of a log, you know he got there with help.

"That's been the case with my life and with my election as moderator today."

In his new role, Valentine will help with the assembly's full agenda, which includes a lot of standard fare -- child advocacy, evangelism, the environment, health care and pension funds, to name a few.

However, as church lay worker Martha Pillow said yesterday, "We all know which issue is going to dominate this assembly."

Pillow doesn't even say what that issue is. She doesn't need to, not when anyone with the slightest interest in the Presbyterian assembly knows that this year's hot topic concerns a report on a certain three-letter word -- sex -- that may yet cause many church members to use four-letter words.

The assembly, which began yesterday at the Convention Center and continues through next Wednesday, is expected to draw more than 5,000 members of the 2.9 million-member church. About 600 "commissioners," elected representatives of the 11,000 Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches in the United States and Puerto Rico, will vote on some 200 bills that could shape church policy for years.

The 200-page report on human sexuality, titled "Keeping Body and Soul Together," unleashed a furor in the church when it was released in February. Some church members praise the report for its forthright and modern outlook on matters such as teen sex, homosexuality, pre-marital sex and masturbation. Others blast the document for its perceived arrogant tone that discourages dialogue and a theological premise that strays too far from biblical tenets.

The assembly consensus is that the report will be overwhelmingly voted down by the commissioners, though the discussion of the study next Monday is certain to generate the liveliest debate of the nine-day gathering.

As some of the assembly visitors strolled through the Convention Center yesterday, they cited what they thought were important topics on the agenda.

But, they said, they couldn't escape the feeling that the sexuality study will overshadow all other topics.

Pillow, a lay employee at the denomination's national office in Louisville, Ky., and an elder at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church there, said she wants to see the church "try to put more teeth into how it addresses child advocacy issues."

"I'd like to see us raise awareness of a whole range of issues like child hunger, poverty among children and the lack of proper maternity leave for American mothers," she said.

As for that study whose topic is so well-known that she didn't even need to mention it, Pillow said, "That's just something the church needs to address. It won't be a cinch, but we're a courageous church. We may fight and argue, but we do try to face the tough issues."

Joseph Gaston, the president of the denomination's Johnson C. Smith Seminary in Atlanta and a member of the assembly's committee on theological education, said he would like to see the church's national office improve its career placement system for ministers and lay people.

However, Gaston conceded, career placement is getting a fraction of the attention that the sexuality report has received. He said he tends not to agree with the bulk of the report because it "talks about alternative styles of relationships and moves too far away from the Christian idea of what the traditional family should be like."

But, he added, "The sex issue is not going to go away. The church has to deal with it and take a position."

The Rev. Harry Cahill, the associate pastor of Towson Presbyterian Church and one of 45 ministers who served communion at the opening service last night at the Baltimore Arena, agreed that sexuality should be discussed thoroughly by the church. But he criticized the report for having "a tone that cuts off dialogue instead of promoting it. It says, 'Here's what we think, and if you don't go along with it, then something's wrong with you.' "

The Rev. Denny Finnegan, the associate pastor of Lancaster Presbyterian Church near Buffalo, N.Y., said the sexuality report is "the main reason I'm here [at the assembly]."

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