The leader of the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected a petition Monday calling for the denomination's first special assembly in its 214-year history, a meeting that would have considered enforcing a ban on ordaining sexually active gay and lesbian ministers.
The Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, moderator of the church, which counts 2.5 million members in the United States, said 13 of the petition's original 57 signatories, who are also church delegates, had withdrawn their support for the historic special session, leaving the movement short of the 50 required.
"There are no winners in this situation," wrote Abu-Akel in a letter released Monday to the 554 delegates who would have attended the Special Assembly. "It has become even more obvious through this that there are people who are in great pain in our denomination. "
The Presbyterians are the latest in a series of mainline Protestant denominations to split over homosexuality issues.
Alex Metherell, the Laguna Beach resident who engineered the effort to call a special assembly, accused Abu-Akel and the Presbyterian hierarchy of pressuring ministers and elders into withdrawing their names, an act he equated to lobbying voters after their ballots were cast.
"It took tremendous courage and bravery to sign their names the first time, and they were asked, in effect, to revote," Metherell said. He said church leaders had "simply embarked on a heavy intimidation process, and these ministers' livelihood depend on the church."
Abu-Akel had asked all the petitioners to reconsider their decision, saying a special session would be costly and ineffective and would "diminish our greater witness to the world."
Metherell said he undertook the campaign because he had grown frustrated with what he believed was open defiance of the church's constitution by some liberal Presbyterians.
In recent years, a relative handful of the nation's 11,200 Presbyterian congregations have hired non-celibate gay and lesbian ministers, married same-sex couples and allowed non-Christians to join the church, all acts forbidden by church rules.
Leaders of the church's liberal wing say they are acting out of religious principle.
Abu-Akel said the matter of constitutional defiance will be brought up in May at the church's regularly scheduled General Assembly in Denver.
But the underlying conflict still threatens to split the church. "We're at ideological loggerheads," said Pastor Bill Pawson of Westminster Presbyterian Church. "We have to either bring things back to order or admit that we have a constitution that is worthless and doesn't mean anything. Then we no longer have a denomination."