The agenda of the 203rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) includes a lot of standard fare. Child advocacy. Evangelism. The environment. Health care. Pension funds.
And yet, 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 Baltimore 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 last 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."
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]."
"On the one hand, the report has a lot of good things in it and raises some good issues," Finnegan said, "but I'm concerned
that it tries to seek our unity not through obedience to Christ but through some general, abstract ideas, like 'justice' and 'love.' "
And in case the sexuality report slipped anyone's mind, Wayne Albrecht of Ellicott City offered a not-so-subtle reminder -- in the form of two signs condemning the report, which he held up in the lower lobby of the Convention Center.
The signs, with black letters on yellow cardboard, read, "Presbyterian PhDs rewrite Bible. 'If it feels good, then do it,' " and " 'Satan' is alive and well in the Presbyterian Church."
Albrecht, an attorney and a member of Granite Presbyterian Church, said the report "will degrade our society and degrade our youth." He claimed to have received one negative response and about 175 positive responses while he stood in the lobby.
"My minister is here. I talked to him. He doesn't agree with me," said Albrecht, who added, "He's one of the Ph.D.s."
Just then, the Rev. John Carey of Georgia, the head of the committee that wrote the report, walked by. Albrecht called out, "Hi, Dr. Carey." Carey said nothing. He continued walking and shook his head.