A century ago, Presbyterians accused the country's leading Old Testament scholar of heresy. They put him on trial, convicted him and expelled him from the ministry.
His crime? Maintaining that the Bible could best be understood by applying historical and critical scholarship to the interpretation of scripture.
Today, that method of biblical interpretation is firmly enshrined in the church's confessions, and all its pastors are trained in the historical-critical approach to biblical studies.
How do institutions change their minds? Not easily, to be sure. But as shown by the outcome of those fierce debates of the early 1890s, it does happen. Some historians even suggest that the strident attacks on Dr. Charles Augustus Briggs actually hastened his church's rejection of fundamentalism and the adoption of his views.
Recent news stories from Baltimore's Convention Center have reported the fact that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) chose not to change its mind, and voted overwhelmingly to retain a decade-old prohibition on the ordination of homosexuals to the church's ministry. In its nine-day meeting, which concluded here rTC Wednesday, the church's General Assembly also defeated a recommendation that marriage not be the only criterion for assessing the morality of sexual relationships.
In taking those actions, the assembly overwhelmingly rejected a controversial report on human sexuality from a task force commissioned by the church four years ago. The report -- which has sold more than 42,000 copies since its release in February -- made headlines around the country, as did the assembly's actions on it last week.
But the most significant news may simply be the fact that the meeting did not explode in charges of heresy, as did the debate about scripture a century ago. In fact, this debate was followed by a show of tolerance and a reaffirmation of unity in the face of bitter and seemingly irreconcilable disagreements.
After an exhausting session and a decisive vote Monday evening, the 600 commissioners sat quietly while several hundred supporters of gay and lesbian ordination filed into the convention hall carrying a cross symbolizing their feelings of rejection and disappointment. The moment was itself a message to those who had not wanted the sexuality issue discussed and even wanted the task force's report omitted from records of the meeting.
In political terms, the assembly did something politicians are having a hard time achieving these days: It took a decisive action, while also refusing to give in to extremists.
Controversies about human sexuality -- particularly over the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals -- are now simmering in several Christian denominations. These are not easy issues for any institution, political or religious, but it seems certain they will not go away.
Soon after the debate on the sexuality report, the commissioners took up another matter that is bedeviling religious institutions these days -- the emotional and legal consequences of the rising number of accusations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.
But is a change of heart called for, simply because troubling issues won't go away? Obviously, plenty of people think not -- evidently including the majority of Presbyterians. On the other hand, it's equally clear that people and institutions have changed their minds about a lot of controversial things, from slavery to divorce to the status of women.
Despite all the talk about sex, perhaps the real issue to watch as various institutions confront controversial issues is not so much what they decide as how they carry on the debate. For a country that depends on diversity, that is an issue that has more than passing relevance.
Given its sound defeat, it's easy to conclude that the Presbyterian task force was out of touch with political reality. But there are two ways to move institutions.
One is by gradual steps that eventually bring a measure of change. Another is by shocking people with positions that seem to be hopelessly explosive -- but that succeed in engendering an lively debate which may lead to change more quickly than would otherwise happen. The Presbyterian task force's report clearly fell into the latter category.
As in secular politics, conservative extremists, both within the Presbyterian Church and outside it, attempted to brand the church as hopelessly heretical for even discussing controversial issues, and some groups may continue these attempts. But to their credit, Presbyterians refused to stifle the debate. More important, there will be no heresy trials.
Is it possible to see in that accomplishment a ray of hope for churches and for a society more often torn by disagreements rather than strengthened by diversity?
Sara Engram is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The