Forced to Confront Controversy

Times Staff Writer

On the screen of a laptop computer, unmanned boats race through San Diego Harbor and crash into floating barriers designed to thwart terrorists’ attacks on Navy ships.

The speedboats then smash through the walls or simply jump over giant inflated tubes built to stop them. Alex Metherell, 63, explains how simple physics doomed each of the attempts to block the simulated attacks.

Next, the Laguna Beach physician, who also holds a PhD in engineering, rolls a video showing the first test of his invention, the “Sea Fence.” In a scaled-down trial conducted in Newport Harbor, each of the model boats was stopped almost instantly by the net fence.

“It’s a creative solution that’s never been used before,” said Metherell, who is developing the project with his son, a former Navy SEAL. “I’m a problem solver.”


Right now, Metherell is also a problem creator for the Presbyterian Church (USA). Fed up with what he believes is liberals’ open defiance of the church’s constitution, Metherell used his engineer’s mind-set to take advantage of a little-known and never-used provision of church law that allowed him to trigger the first Special Assembly in the church’s 214-year history.

The assembly, Metherell said, will force church leaders to meet head-on issues that he believes the denomination has been side-stepping for three decades, including whether to ordain non-celibate gay pastors and sanction same-sex marriages.

In recent years, a relative handful of the nation’s 11,200 Presbyterian congregations have defied the denomination’s constitution by openly hiring non-celibate gay and lesbian ministers, marrying same-sex couples and allowing non-Christians to join the church.

Leaders of the church’s liberal wing say they are acting out of religious principle. At a protest last fall, the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken of Cincinnati quoted Martin Luther to justify his position.


“Following our precious legacy of religious liberty, with care and concern for gay and lesbian members and their families, and out of devotion to God that I experience in Jesus, I must simply echo the words of Martin Luther: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other,’ ” he said.

Metherell said the issue isn’t homosexuality, but rather adherence to the church’s democratically written constitution.

“The defiance goes on in all areas,” he said, his voice still bearing a slight accent from his native Australia. “The [church’s] constitution is the fabric that holds the denomination together. By defying it they are tearing us apart.”

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has local councils feeding into regional councils and finally into the nationwide General Assembly, which meets annually. The church also has a multi-tiered system of 190 courts.

The move for a Special Assembly has angered a wide swath of Presbyterians, both conservative and liberal, who feel that it’s an expensive and perhaps ineffective way to deal with some of the church’s thorniest problems.

“These are a very few Presbyterians who think that change will come about if the church is put under extreme pressure,” said Barbara Wheeler, a church liberal and president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. “They have succeeded by their energy, zeal and publicity in creating a huge amount of rancor, noise and difficulty. The vast majority of Presbyterians don’t want it this way.”

Richard J. Mouw, an evangelical and president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, agreed that a Special Assembly isn’t the best forum in which to resolve the issues. But he also said the move signals the growing frustration of conservatives within the church.

“I think it would be wrong for the more liberal leadership to dismiss this as a reactionary thing,” said Mouw, who says conservatives have worked hard for compromises in church laws only to see more strident liberals defy them in many cases.


Even Metherell’s pastor -- conservative John A. Huffman Jr. of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach -- put out a statement saying a Special Assembly “is not only unwise but could be counterproductive to our constitutional procedures.”

Last week, Metherell flew to church headquarters in Louisville to deliver the necessary paperwork, which included signatures from 57 of 554 elected commissioners made up of elders and ministers. He needed 50 signatures to force the Special Assembly. “Everybody sat in stunned silence,” he recalled.

Since then, the church hierarchy has scrambled to figure out the procedures for calling its first Special Assembly. Petition signatures are being checked, and church leaders say that if they’re valid, the meeting will take place in May, the same month as the scheduled General Assembly in Denver.

Despite being surrounded by opposition, Metherell, a man who wears blue oxford shirts, charcoal gray pants and black wingtips, appears unflustered. Sitting with his wife, Pam, in their cliffside home overlooking Emerald Bay, he calmly explains his belief that the assembly will allow three days of vigorous debate on issues that otherwise threaten to split the church.

Ultimately, he says, the 554 commissioners will come up with a solution that will bring the church’s constitution and the behavior of its followers in line.

Explaining why he jumped into such a fight, Metherell uses an analogy from his days as a doctor. He says he views the growing instances of defiance -- and lack of resulting sanctions -- in the same way he saw tumors as a physician.

“We’re only seeing things on the surface,” he said. “But they tell you about an underlying problem that is far worse and far more serious. If we don’t treat it, the patient will die.”