The board of deacons at First Baptist Church, where President Carter worships, has voted to deny use of the church to a group called Peacemakers that brings a handful of people together once a week to talk and pray for peace.
The action was triggered by a two-day disarmament convocation sponsored by Peacemakers at the church earlier this month, which featured the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, pastor of Riverside Church in New York City and antiwar activist. During one session of the convocation, the presentation of an award for peace to President Carter was disrupted by anti-Carter protesters from outside the church.
The disruption and the publicity it attracted outraged some members. Others, including members of the diaconate, has been offended by Coffin's sermon, in which the Presbyterian minister argued, on both religious and political grounds, for a nuclear-era equivalent of beating swords into plowshares.
Although Coffin was midly critical of the present administration's policies on armaments and defense, President Carter, who was in the congregation, pronounced the sermon "superb" after the service.
But two days later, on June 6, the diaconate met in what reportedly was an angry session and by a vote of 13 to 9, moved to abolish the Peacemakers' Thursday noon lecture on some aspect of peace and prayers.
In its place the diaconate directed the pastor, the Rev. Charles Trentham, to institute weekly prayers for peace.
The diaconate's effort to curtail Peacemakers, whose Thursday noon speakers have run the gamut from SALT negotiator Paul Warnke to local clergy, reflects other tensions in the congregation, church leaders say.
These include annoyance with the inevitable disruptions that come with the presidential presence and his retinue of Secret Service bodyguards, impatience with the media and assorted protesters and demonstrators; leftover antipathies to the anti-Vietnam war movement; and, to some extent, disapproval of the president's political policies.
"Within the church you have people of all views," said Dr. William McBeth, chairman of the diaconate, who indicated he disagrees sharply with the action of the majority. "There are people here who are basically conservative, who are mad about the Panama Canal or Rhodesia or whatever. They can't do anything about those things so they focus on the things they can do something about," he said in explaining the action against Peacemakers.
Subsequently, lawyers in the congregation checked the church constitution and records and found that the diaconate has no authority to abolish Peacemakers, since it had gotten congregational approval for its program last fall.
Despite that conclusion, layman Paul Oyer, the moving spirit behind Peacemakers, said it has been suggested to him by a congregational leader - he refuses to say who - that he stay away from future meetings of the group for the next few weeks and let Trentham take over. Oyer, a former New Yorker, was a member of Coffin's church there and was instrumental in bringing the activist pastor here.
He is uncertain as to what he will do. "It's not enough just to pray for peace" as the deacons directed, he said. "If you're going to pray for peace, you need to learn some specifics so you can focus your prayer power."