A conservative Silver Spring Presbyterian congregation voted last night to split from the 2.5-million-member United Presbyterian Church because of differences over the roles of women, theology and social action programs.
In a highly emotional session, in which congregational officials exchanged charges of "lying" and "deception," the Presbyterian Church of the Atonement voted 188 to 25 to cut itself loose from national denominational ties.
Behind last night's action lies the sharp disavowal by the Atonement congregation of liberal positions taken by the national church in recent years in such emotional areas as sex, race and religious belief.
"I will have been a Presbyterian for 70 years next month, if I live that long," said James Miller, an elder of the congregation, in a voice that sometimes quavered with emotion. "This church ought to leave the United Presbyterian church to be faithful to Jesus Christ."
High on the list of complaints the Silver Spring congregation has against the United Presbyterian church is the national body's stand on the roles of women. Two years ago the national church adopted a regulation requiring all local churches to elect women to congregational offices. Atonement has no women in such positions.
The denomination, which has ordained women to the ministry for many years, also has a regulation that all candidates for the ministry must support the ordination of women. Reference was made several times last night to three young seminary graduates, members of Atonement church who can not be ordained in the national church because of their opposition to women ministers. Some conservative Christians believe that the Bible forbids women to hold authority over men.
James Singletary, one of the few blacks at last night's meeting, urged the congregation to vote against withdrawal. "We are acting at a time of great stress in our country," he said. He warned that pulling out of the liberal national church "will be seen as aiding and abetting the forces that feel social and economic change has gone too far . . . We should not permit the anit-American forces of racism and sexism to establish another haven in this country."
The Rev. Stewart J. Rankin, who will retire as pastor of Atonement next month, said a few days earlier that over the years his congregation found some of the denomination's "social activist programs a little much."
But the last straw, said Rankin, was the overwhelming approval by the local National Capital Union Presbytery of a minister whose views on the divinity of Christ the conservatives disapproved.
Twice leaders of Atonement, together with representatives of three other local churches, challenged the Presbytery's approval of the Rev. Mansfield Kaseman of Rockville's United Church. In January, the church's highest court ruled against the challengers. "That was the final thing that brought our congregation to its decision" to withdraw, Rankin said. t
Last night's action by the Atonement congregation is the first example locally of a national drift in the church toward liberal-conservative polarization, and a possible schism in Presbyterianism. It dramatically reverses the trend of a decade ago toward greater interdenominational cooperation and unity. In the Washington area, that trend nine years ago brought together the churches of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA -- the Northern church -- and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. -- the Southern church -- into the National Capital Union Presbytery.
According to national church leaders, 53 congregations have withdrawn from the United Presbyterian Church in the last four or five years, and "probably close to 200" from the Southern Presbyterian church.
Nevertheless, the denominations are pursuing plans to reunite the two major Presbyterian branches that have been on separate paths since the Civil War.