For delegates attending the national conventions of three mainline denominations in the past several weeks, it has been an intense period, a time to debate hot-button issues and make difficult choices over who can best lead their churches.
Combined, the Southern Baptist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches represent more than 20 million Americans. The three clergy elected to head the churches are all relatively unknown faces on the national religious scene – and all are surprise choices.
“I never dreamed that it would happen,” the Rev. Frank S. Page said of his victory over two well-known pastors to head the 16.2-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. “Nobody knew me. Who knew Frank Page?”
The self-effacing and affable North Carolina native, who speaks with a warm drawl, said that he sought the top office not intending to win but to get important issues before the 11,000 “messengers” attending the denomination’s annual meeting, held this year in Greensboro, N.C.
Twenty years ago, the typical Southern Baptist church gave 10.6 percent of the donations it collected to the program, said the Rev. Kenyn Cureton, a top official at the Nashville, Tenn., headquarters. These days, the average donation is 6.6 percent.
But Page’s congregation bucked the trend and has given 12 percent, which helped secure the little-known pastor’s election.
Page is pastor of the 4,300-member First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C. The congregation grew to 21/2 times its original membership since he took over the church five years ago.
Page said he plans to put a “sweeter and gentler” face to the denomination by emphasizing what it stands for, not what it opposes.
“Unfortunately, Southern Baptists have long been known for what we’ve been against,” he said.
“I want to send a positive message of transformation – the power of Christ to change lives.”
The Rev. Joan S. Gray, the new moderator of the 2.3-million-member Presbyterian Church USA, is an Atlanta-based pastor and author whose specialty is conflict resolution and church governance.
Gray, 53, is a veteran “intentional interim pastor” and is brought in to fix churches torn by strife. But Gray says she comes to her new job without many answers. She wants to let God lead the way.
“I really believe God will lead us,” she told the 217th General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala., describing her two-year term as a “faith walk adventure.”
After three decades of contentious debate over homosexuality, commissioners voted to allow local and regional governing bodies to decide whether to ordain gays and lesbians as clergy and lay leaders.
Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said Gray is considered a “very solid leader who is known for her faithfulness to biblical teachings.”
But Mouw also noted that her job has been made more difficult by the policy on gay clergy, which probably will bring about “a proliferation of ordinations of persons who are in active, same-sex relationships.”
“If that is the case, it’s going to be very difficult for evangelicals in the Presbyterian Church to continue to feel committed to the work of the denomination and to the unity of the denomination,” he said.
The denomination has lost 1.8 million members in the last four decades.
In other actions, the assembly revised its controversial 2004 position calling for “phased, selective divestment” in companies involved in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The new statement says the Presbyterian church’s holdings pertaining to Israeli and Palestinian territory should “be invested in only peaceful pursuits.”
On abortion, the assembly, shifting long-standing church policy, voted to declare that “viable unborn babies – those well-developed enough to survive outside the womb if delivered – ought to be preserved and cared for and not aborted.”
The convention also was rocked by a large surprise.
Six days after Denver businessman and Presbyterian elder Stanley Anderson electrified the assembly by pledging to contribute $150 million to help to plant new churches and help struggling congregations, a news report put that offer into question.
The Denver Post reported that Anderson owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to creditors. Last year, two lenders began foreclosure proceedings on Anderson’s house and one debt remains, the newspaper said.
Katharine Jefferts Schori’s election as the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and her support of gay clergy appears to be exacerbating tensions between the U.S. church and the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The church, which has been torn by the selection of an openly gay bishop three years ago, continued to struggle with the issue even though some church leaders, including Jefferts Schori, have said it’s time to end the debate over human sexuality and focus on ministering to people in need.
The day after Episcopal leaders rejected a temporary ban against gay bishops, they reversed themselves. In the interest of promoting harmony, Jefferts Schori, 52, of Nevada, endorsed the proposal, which doesn’t ban gay bishops but discourages the church from electing them.
That’s not enough to satisfy conservative congregants who were planning their response to what they say has become two contentious churches under one roof: conservative orthodox and liberal revisionist.
In a pastoral letter, the Rt. Rev. Robert Duncan, moderator of the Anglican Communion Network, wrote: “It is with sadness, but also with anticipation, that I write to you now that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church has provided the clarity for which we have long prayed. By almost every assessment the General Convention has embraced the course of ‘walking apart.’”
In coming weeks, he added, various orthodox councils around the world will determine how, or whether, the two groups can continue to co-exist.