Church's state of separation
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published May 19, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - Until last summer, the Rev. Bill Martin had been willing to fight for change from within his beloved Presbyterian Church.
Then the denomination crossed what he believes was a nonnegotiable line. The national church set aside biblical authority, he says, when it gave local churches the ability to allow noncelibate gays to become ministers, elders and deacons.
An outspoken conservative among Tampa Bay Presbyterians, Martin decided to walk away from the St. Petersburg church he'd led for two decades. Half of the 400-member congregation and most of its staff followed him.
The issue of gay ordination has become a divisive issue in mainline denominations, roiling Presbyterians, United Methodists and Episcopalians who are being forced to choose between adhering to literal biblical teachings or more contemporary interpretations.
The local schism has split families and friends and created gaps in worship services.
Still, both sides call it a "gracious separation." They aren't at ideological odds - neither agrees with the national church - they just disagree on how to deal with it.
In a written statement, Northeast Presbyterian members who stayed said they "felt that a spiritual battle was being waged within our denomination" and they needed to remain to help.
Since Martin's departure, about 175 people attend Sunday service. Dave Ruth, a Christian counselor and teacher, is filling in as preacher.
Martin's new Cornerstone Bible Church meets a mere seven minutes away at the St. Petersburg Women's Club on Snell Isle.
Sitting in donated offices on the second floor of the Snell Isle Plaza last week, Martin spoke about leaving the denomination he had joined more than 30 years ago.
He said he could not remain in the 2.4-million member Presbyterian Church USA while it continued to list to the left theologically, ecclesiastically and biblically
The breaking point occurred at the denomination's general assembly last June. The gathering approved an "authoritative interpretation" of the church's constitution that, while it upholds its ordination standards, gives local jurisdictions greater discretion when applying them. At the same time, the assembly voted down proposals to remove the requirement of "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness" for deacons, elders and ministers.
The change was hailed by advocates of the gay community.
"While the reality is that the authoritative interpretation did not remove discrimination from our church, it opens the door for change, " said Michael J. Adee, an openly gay elder in New Mexico and field organizer for More Light Presbyterians. The group works for full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Many inside the church viewed it as a compromise, a way to stem dissension and possible schism.
For Martin, it was the beginning of the end.
He embraces gays as church members, he says, but he doesn't believe they should be spiritual leaders.
Variety of responses
The Rev. David Miller of Faith Presbyterian Church in Seminole, who has attended Martin's new church, also disagrees with the national church's actions.
"For the first time ever in the long history of the Presbyterian Church on American soil, a self-affirming, noncelibate gay candidate could be ordained in a way that is constitutionally approved, " said Miller, who doesn't plan to leave the church.
"I think Bill took the high road, " he said. "We need to be faithful to Christ and faithfulness is not only in what we say, but the way we live. Some of us are in different places."
Miller said there "can be a variety of faithful responses" to the issue, including prayer and taking disagreements to church courts. He said his congregation passed resolutions pledging to adhere to biblical morality and most members believe homosexuality "is not God's wish for his children."
On Sunday, Martin joined the 70, 000-member Evangelical Presbyterian denomination. The conservative group, founded in 1981, teaches that the Bible is the infallible word of God, does not accept homosexuality and preaches against abortion.
Martin, 58, preached his last service at Northeast Presbyterian on March 11.
"It broke my heart to leave, but I had to do what I had to, " he said. "It wasn't tearful for me. It was tearful for my wife, Sandy, and for members of my congregation."
Tom Strickland, 48, is among those who followed Martin.
"Although we walked away from millions and millions of dollars in assets, more importantly, we walked away from something we felt that was not scripturally based, " Strickland said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at 892-2283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.