SALT LAKE CITY, JUNE 5 -- Presbyterians adopted today a new statement of faith that mixes traditional Christian beliefs with environmental concerns and images of God as both mother and father.
Commissioners to the 202nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) stood and cheered after voting, 499 to 25, for the first statement of faith since a 1983 merger healed a Civil War-era split over slavery.
"We must agree on what we believe before we can agree on much else," Price Henderson Gwynn III, newly elected assembly moderator, said after the vote.
If the document is approved by two-thirds of the denomination's 177 regional presbyteries and again by the 1991 General Assembly, it will become the 11th statement of faith in the denomination's Book of Confessions.
Some observers said the confession is particularly important for the 2.9 million-member denomination, which has lost one-third of its members during the last 25 years amid criticism that it lacked a strong identity.
"The theological integrity of the Presbyterian Church depends on the statement of faith," said the Rev. Jack Stotts, chairman of the committee that developed the statement.
Stotts, president of Austin Theological Seminary in Texas, said the confession was designed to retain the historic faith while "speaking both in the idiom of the contemporary world and to the concerns of the contemporary world."
The statement upholds centuries-old church teachings that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully God and that God raised Jesus from the dead to offer eternal life.
Reflecting more recent church concerns, the confession states that human beings deserve God's condemnation for the way they exploit nature "and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care."
Among other contemporary elements, the statement declares that God calls women and men to all ministries of the church and likens God to a mother who will not forsake her nursing child and a father "who runs to welcome the prodigal home."
In a denomination where slavery led to a 122-year split between its northern and southern branches, the new statement affirms that God "makes everyone equally in God's image, male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community."
In other business today, the assembly voted to allocate $1 million for a five-year program to address problems facing American black men and to advocate normalizing relations with Cuba.
Commissioners charged the denomination, which is less than 2 percent black, with developing outreach and self-help programs.
On Monday, the assembly decided to postpone until 1991 action on several issues related to abortion and ordination of homosexuals and voted to create a church office for the environment.
The postponed resolutions included one calling for the church to withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights and one that would have allowed local church bodies to ordain practicing homosexuals.