By Jennifer Garza
Published: Monday, Jun. 27, 2011

The mood Sunday morning at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Sunday was upbeat – the pews were packed and many nodded as the pastor preached his message of forgiveness.

They showed no sign of the turmoil that led the congregation to leave the national denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). It was a closely watched decision, costing Fair Oaks congregants $1.2 million in March to settle property rights between the church and the national body.

Fair Oaks Presbyterian, with about 1,300 worshippers, became one of the first in the state to leave the national church, disagreeing with its direction and the new ordination standards that allow gay clergy.

“We were concerned about the lack of biblical authority,” said Fair Oaks Pastor Kirk Bottomly. “We felt that the line had been crossed and it was time to go.”

Now local Presbyterian church leaders wonder if other congregations will follow.

Next month, the Presbyterian Church begins allowing those who are openly gay to be ordained as ministers, elders and deacons. The new rules, which were approved in May and take effect July 10, have provoked a wide range of responses from local church leaders.

They are holding town hall meetings with concerned members, sending letters explaining the rules and posting their opinions of the new ordination standards on their church websites.

“It is the biggest upheaval I have ever seen,” said the Rev. Donald Baird, of Fremont Presbyterian Church, the largest in the area. “This is my worst nightmare. What does it mean when those openly violating Scripture are ordained?”

Five churches in the area – including two of the largest, Roseville Presbyterian and Fair Oaks – have left the denomination in the past couple of years. About 100 congregations nationally have left the denomination in the last five years, according to the Presbyterian News Service. Many joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Association.

But supporters of the changes said some critics may not understand the new rules.

“This issue should not be a deal-breaker,” said the Rev. Mary Lynn Tobin, senior pastor of Davis Community Church. She also worked on the national board working to allow the ordination of gays. “Churches who do not want to ordain gays don’t have to. Nobody is forcing them.”

She doesn’t want anyone to leave the church and urges both sides to listen to each other.

“I am very sorry that they chose to leave the denomination,” she said of the churches that have left. “Our church didn’t leave when things were happening that were troubling to us. We need all perspectives in the church.”

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has about 2 million members. It joins other mainline Protestant groups, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church, in voting to allow gay church leaders.

The Sacramento Presbytery includes 38 churches and stretches from Elk Grove to the Oregon border. About 10,000 people attend churches in the region, according to the Rev. Jay Wilkins, of the Sacramento Presbytery, the region’s governing body.

“This is an opportunity to redefine ourselves, but I understand a number of people are trying to understand the nature of the changes,” Wilkins said.

In May, church leaders ratified an amendment to their constitution that removes language, according to Tobin, that prohibited gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals, as well as all other unmarried sexually active men and women, from serving as ordained officers of the church.

Under the new rules, local church leaders will have more flexibility in determining each candidate’s fitness for office, Tobin said. All other ordination standards stay the same.

“I think, first and foremost, the qualification is going to be what it has always been – a commitment to faith,” said Dan Roth, a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Sacramento.

He believes both viewpoints can coexist in the denomination but compares the problem to a troubled relationship.

“Sometimes if a relationship isn’t working, and has two different viewpoints, then it’s time to show grace and humility and discuss exiting so both sides can move forward.”

Tobin and Roth said they do not know of anyone locally planning to be ordained soon. “There are not hordes of GLBT trying to get into a Presbyterian church,” Tobin said. “We have done a good job of hurting and rejecting them. They have clearly gotten the message.”

Bottomly said his church welcomes and ministers to gay congregants. “The gay issues became the flash point, an example of the erosion of biblical authority in the larger denomination.”

Baird is not ready to leave. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were Presbyterian pastors. So are Baird’s two sons.

“This is not a theological discussion for me,” Baird said. “The only reason I can think of to stay is to be a beacon on the hill. But if I feel like I’m this voice in the wilderness and no one is listening, well, then, we’ll see.”

At Fair Oaks Presbyterian, members say they have put the conflict behind them and the church is now in the process of choosing a new name.

Cheryl Sewell, 66, has attended the Fair Oaks church with her husband, Jim, for 35 years. The two have seen many changes.

“It’s not always easy, but it’s part of the journey,” Sewell said. “No matter what, you have to move on.”

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