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social sciences

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

In the United States, the largest Presbyterian denomination is the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has approximately 2,000,000 members and over 10,000 congregations. It is considered one of the "mainline Protestant" denominations that helped define American Christianity until the 1960s, and assumed leadership roles in many areas of American life, especially on social justice issues. However, since the 1960s, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other mainline Protestant denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church of the United States, and the United Church of Christ, have lost membership and influence.

Sponsor Message.

The decline in membership in the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been steady since 1983, when the Church counted more than 3,000,000 members.

Presbyterians were among the earliest Reformed immigrants to America. They founded congregations as early as the 1630s, and in 1706 formed the Presbytery of Philadelphia, the first in the New World. The Synod of Philadelphia was organized in 1716. In 1798, the Synod formed the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the body to which the current Presbyterian Church (USA) traces its origins.

One of the many schisms to divide the Presbyterian Church (USA) occurred in 1861, when the southern Presbyterians split from the PCUSA over the issue of slavery. Over the years Presbyterian denominations in the United States have split and reunited and split and formed other alliances.

Many of the conflicts within Presbyterianism in the twentieth century involved biblical interpretation and social issues. In the 1920s, those who believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible as the fundamental source of authority clashed with those who held a more modern and nuanced view of Biblical interpretation. In the 1950s and 1960s, conflicts over racism and gender divided Presbyterianism, especially disagreements over the PCUSA's involvement in the African-American civil rights movement and over the ordination of women.

Since the 1970s, the question of homosexuality has been a major issue of contention within the Presbyterian Church (USA).

In 1978, the Church issued a study document entitled "The Church and Homosexuality" that contained a policy statement and recommendations that were adopted by the General Assembly. This document declared that "homosexuality is not God's wish for humanity." It asserted that "In many cases, homosexuality is more a sign of the brokenness of God's world than of willful rebellion. In other cases homosexuality is freely chosen or learned in environments where normal development is thwarted. Even where homosexual orientation has not been consciously sought or chosen, it is neither a gift from God nor a condition like race; it is a result of our living in a fallen world."

Although the document said that "Persons who manifest homosexual behavior must be treated with the profound respect and pastoral tenderness due all people of God" and asserted that "There can be no place within the Christian faith for the response to homosexual persons of mingled contempt, hatred, and fear that is called homophobia," it firmly rejected "the ordination [as deacons, elders, or pastors] of persons who do not repent of homosexual practice."

One reaction to the study document was the formation of the More Light Presbyterian (MLP) movement, which also had its germination in other groups in the mid-1970s such as "Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns." Although the earlier groups had repeatedly been spurned by General Assemblies, with their reports routinely refused, the 1978 study document so infuriated social justice activists and gay-friendly congregations that they became more aggressive and therefore less able to be ignored.

Congregations appalled by the exclusion of an entire class of people from church leadership began adopting resolutions proclaiming their intention to be inclusive in all aspects of ministry and to seek "God's light" on issues of sexuality. These congregations became known as More Light Churches and made a particular effort to welcome gay and lesbian members.

The first congregation to proclaim itself a "More Light Church" was the West-Park Presbyterian Church in New York City in 1978. The pastor of West-Park, Rev. Robert Davidson, announced that "In harmony with the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church, West-Park Church affirms the civil rights of all persons. Further, in keeping with our General Assembly's guidelines, this community of faith welcomes as members homosexual persons who both seek and have found Christ's love."

Then he added, in open defiance of the General Assembly, "This local congregation will not select one particular element from a person's total humanity as a basis for denying full participation and service in the body of Christ. Nor will this community of faith condemn or judge our brothers and sisters who declare their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and promise discipleship to Him."

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