Splinter groups turn into churches

There's a popular saying in church-planting circles: it's easier to make babies than to raise the dead.

principle applies to denominations as well, said Paul Detterman, who in
January helped found the Evangelical Cov­enant Order of Presbyterians.
"We thought it was easier in the long run to create something new rather
than to keep on trying to modify existing forms," he said.

"existing form," in Detterman's case, was the Presbyterian Church
(U.S.A.), which remains the largest Presbyterian denomination despite a
decades-long plunge in membership.

The emergence of the ECO may
steepen that decline. Thousands of conservative Presbyterians, upset
over the PCUSA's vote to lift its ban on partnered gay and lesbian
clergy last year, are eyeing the new group. Planning for the ECO, which
will not ordain sexually active gays and lesbians, preceded the gay
clergy vote, Detterman said.

Nonetheless, the ECO represents the
third new mainline Protestant body since 2008 to split from a national
church following votes to permit partnered gay clergy.

Anglican Church in North America formed in late 2008, five years after
the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.
In 2010, a year after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted
to allow partnered gay and lesbian clergy, conservatives established the
North American Lutheran Church.

The question now is whether these
breakaway groups signal a seismic shift in American Protestantism or
just a few fissures in the theological terrain.

Leaders of all
three new denominations say the gay clergy issue was only the breaking
point for conservatives, after years of dissatisfaction with overbearing
bureaucracies, liberal theology and membership losses. Pessimistic
about changing that course from within, some conservatives jumped ship

"When orthodox and conservative Christians made
homosexuality their flash-point issue, and they lost those struggles, in
many ways they had no choice but to create these new structures," said
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a
conservative Washington-based advocacy group.

In some ways, the
rifts are nothing new. American Protestants have been splintering since
Roger Williams left Plymouth Colony in the 1630s, said Nancy T.
Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University. Yet the
schisms counter a 20th-century trend in which ethnic and regional
Protestant groups merged to form big-tent denominations such as the ELCA
and the PCUSA. "What we may be experiencing at this point is the limit
of that movement to draw a lot of diversity under one umbrella," said
Ammerman, author of Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners.

Robert Dun­can, the ACNA's leader, said the new denominations herald a
burgeoning movement. "There is a reformation going on in the Christian
church, particularly in the West, and particularly in the mainline
Protestant denominations," he said. Duncan's ACNA seeks to supplant the
Episcopal Church as the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

some religion scholars say the new denominations are heading down a
demographic dead end unless they can broaden their appeal beyond
conservatives upset over pro-gay church policies. "Public opinion about
gays and lesbians and gay marriage is changing so dramatically that at
some point in the future—ten years, let's say—it's not going to matter
very much," said Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist and director of the
Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.

and other scholars say American Protestantism provides fertile ground
for offshoots, with the membership losses often encouraging the
outgrowth. "People worry that they may be on the wrong track and decide
to start something new," Wuthnow said.

The Episcopal Church, the
ELCA and the PCUSA have lost members for years, as have many North
American denominations, conservative and liberal alike. Still, all three
denominations dwarf their splinter groups.

The Anglican Church in
North Ameri­ca counts 719 member congregations; the Episcopal Church
has more than 7,000. The North Ameri­can Lutheran Church counts about
300 congregations, compared to the ELCA's nearly 10,500. The ECO is just
getting off the ground, while the PCUSA has more than 11,000 churches.

size is not as important to me as the faithfulness of what we've been
challenged to do and to be in terms of our identity," said NALC's Bishop
John Bradosky.

In some cases, the new denominations have
cooperated to meet those challenges. The new Lutheran church plans to
partner with a conservative Anglican seminary in Pennsylvania, and the
two denominations may even share clergy, leaders said.

said the Anglicans advised them not to wait too long to create their new
denomination. "They acknowledge that they took too much time in putting
together an alternative to the Episcopal Church and lost a lot of good
lay leaders," said Mark Chavez, NALC's general secretary.

Anglican breakaway group also has been hampered by lawsuits and
infighting. Late last year the ACNA lost one of its bigger members, the
Anglican Mission in the Americas, after a bitter power struggle between
its American and African leaders. "The present reality is brokenness,"
Duncan wrote in a December 20, 2011, letter to ACNA members. The dispute
worried Episcopal Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana, who counts
numerous friends in the ACNA.

After the Episcopal Church began
ordaining women in the late 1970s, four bishops left to create a new
church, which then split into dozens of smaller denominations with more
bishops than members, Little said.

"A very sad tale indeed,"
Little wrote in a recent e-mail to a conservative blogger. "And, sadly
as well, that pattern seems to be repeating itself with this newer
iteration of Anglican breakaways."  —RNS

Daniel Burke

Daniel Burke writes for Religion News Service.

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