HOUSTON (AP) — An influential, wealthy Houston church is considering a split from the nation’s largest Presbyterian body as it is embroiled in a national debate between those who want to take a more conservative view of the Bible and those who support measures to make room for gay marriage, a newspaper reported Sunday.
The First Presbyterian Church, the oldest such congregation in the city, will vote next Sunday on whether it wants to remain with Presbyterian Church USA or join a breakaway faction that wouldn’t allow for gay clergy or marriage, The Houston Chronicle reported.
Similar debates are going on in Presbyterian churches nationwide since Presbyterian Church USA, which has more than 10,000 churches and 1.8 million members, decided to allow local congregations to choose whether they want to ordain gay clergy. The Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, the largest such congregation in the state, has already joined forces with the breakaway movement, A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Another Houston church is also in the process of joining the evangelical group.
The First Presbyterian Church has more than 3,000 worshippers at its main location in the city’s museum district, as well as several smaller member churches elsewhere in Houston. It also has property and assets valued at more than $100 million and 175-year history. Some of its members sit on powerful boards and hold elected office.
The debate has created tension among members.
Some, such as senior pastor Jim Birchfield, seek what they call a more “Gospel-centered” church that will not be distracted by “threats” such as the “redefinition of marriage” that would open the door to gay marriage.
“I am concerned, not for tomorrow or perhaps for two years from tomorrow, but for the future health and vitality of First Pres,” he said at a recent meeting, referring to the church by its nickname.
Those opposed to breaking off urged others in the congregation to join already existing churches in Houston that share their more conservative opinions.
“I may choose to go where my beliefs are shared and where my beliefs fit in, and so can anyone else,” member Don Ahnberg said at the meeting. “If those seeking dismissal want a church, then leave and start one. Don’t take this church as a matter of convenience.”