The Presbyterian Church (USA) promised this week to reexamine and strengthen ties with Jews, but it left the door open to fund future "Messianic Jewish" congregations that have angered some Jewish groups.
Delegates to the church's General Assembly voted 260 to 233 to preserve national-level funding for new churches, including those, such as one in suburban Philadelphia, that are geared toward Jewish converts to Christianity.
A separate resolution adopted without debate reaffirmed a 1999 statement that urged Presbyterians to "eliminate the language, imagery and symbols . . . that perpetuate stereotypes" against other faiths. That resolution also directed church leaders to report back to the next assembly, in 2006, on what they can do to "better equip the church to live in a religiously plural world."
Supporters said the 2.5 million-member church can respect the integrity of non-Christian faiths while also sharing the Christian message.
"Our focus in the 21st century as Presbyterians is for these racial and ethnic ministries to grow," said the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, a former church moderator, who urged that funding be continued. "For me, the Gospel is for everyone."
Churches in Chicago and New York's Hudson River Valley had asked delegates to evaluate the denomination's relations with Jews after a fledgling Messianic Jewish congregation outside Philadelphia received $260,000 in start-up funding from local, regional and national church offices. The congregation, Avodat Yisrael, looks and feels like a Jewish synagogue but carries an unabashedly Christian message. Its pastor, Andrew Sparks, is a Jewish convert.
Jewish groups criticized Avodat Yisrael as a deceptive attempt to convert Jews because it celebrates Jewish holidays, uses Jewish ritual music and sacred objects such as Torah scrolls and menorahs in Christian worship.
Sparks has insisted that he is not out to convert Jews but instead hopes to reach non-worshiping Jews, interfaith couples and Jews interested in Christianity.
The founding of Avodat Yisrael surprised many Jews because Presbyterians historically have not sought to evangelize or convert Jews. In 1987, the church adopted a statement that said Jews "are already in a covenantal relationship with God."
An additional statement, in 2001, said salvation was not restricted to Christians -- or Presbyterians -- alone. "Grace, love and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine," the statement said.
"This is an insult to our Jewish brothers and sisters and a very poor use of scarce resources of our denomination," said the Rev. John Ames, a pastor from Long Island.
On Tuesday, Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, executive director of the National Council of Synagogues, said he was bitterly disappointed that a legislative committee had recommended continued funding.
"I think the Presbyterian Church (USA) seems to be rolling back the clock 40 years and negating much of the extraordinary progress that has been made during that time," he told the committee.