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First and foremost

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'Look at your hands for just a moment," instructs Jim Singleton, and hundreds of hands are immediately examined. "Do you know that they are sin-stained? Yours? Mine?"

The lead pastor of First Presbyterian Church is speaking before a large group of his elders and deacons. It's Monday afternoon, and Singleton has just returned from Minneapolis and the inaugural gathering of the Fellowship of Presbyterians — a movement of churches that could be leading toward the birth of a new denomination.

The question at hand today: Should his large, 4,000-person downtown Colorado Springs congregation maintain its relationship with Presbyterian Church (USA), the country's largest Presbyterian denomination?

In May, PC(USA)'s member churches voted to strike language from the denomination's Book of Order that forbade homosexuals from taking leadership roles within the church.

The language had stated that in order to be ordained one must live in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."

In response, seven conservative churches, including First Pres, banded together to form the Fellowship.

"Guess which one of those seven has contributed a lot?" Singleton asks his group. "We have sort of been carrying this thing up to this point."

According to a blog post on the Fellowship's website, "The gathering is now a united movement of Presbyterians who will form a New Reformed Body (NRB) for churches who are tired of the failure, incompetency, and conflict of the PC(USA)."

Nothing definitive has emerged about what First Pres intends to do. Singleton refuses to discuss the issue directly with the Independent, stating in an e-mail, "This may be a more interesting story in 3 months than now." (Three months from now, the Fellowship will be in Orlando, Fla., for a constitutional meeting.) Alison Murray, the church's leader of staff, called the Indy but asked not to be quoted on the record.

Their reticence underscores what Pricilla Hill, the stated clerk of PC(USA)'s Presbytery of Pueblo, points out: "This is huge. This is a big deal."

On its website, PC(USA) points out that its membership has been steadily declining for decades; currently, the denomination has around 2 million members. And Hill says, "It could be problematic if a large number of churches decide to leave the PC(USA) and form their own reformed body."

At the two-day meeting in Minneapolis, the idea was to see if common ground could be reached with the denomination. Representatives from about 850 of PC(USA)'s 10,000 churches attended, including Gary R. Weaver, Hill's colleague and executive presbyter of the Presbytery.

Weaver says the meeting was congenial. But he adds that in a battle that dates to at least the late 1970s, the May decision has definitely brought conservative churches to a crossroads: "Now they have to decide whether they can abide by this church, or change it, or leave it."

For his part, he considers the idea that the church is now promoting the ordination of gays and lesbians to be a "straw-man argument." The new language "simply just doesn't refer to sexuality at all," he says. Instead, it compels the church to "focus on the gifts and preparation and so on of the candidate, regardless of sexual orientation."

This is appropriate, says Weaver, who questions how homosexuality has become "the cardinal sin of all time."

If we are all sinners, as Singleton tells his congregation, then why should one particular sin bar any number of gifted preachers from the pulpit? Weaver asks.

"All sins are equal," he says. "Anything that is against the purpose of God's mission in the world is sinful, and we are all guilty."

chet@csindy.com

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