LONG BEACH, Calif. - Presbyterian leaders gathering here this week will debate whether to ban blessings of same-sex unions even if the ceremonies stop short of marriage, the latest ecclesiastical conflict over recognition for gay and lesbian couples.
Organizers of the annual meeting of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) hope a consensus reached at the weeklong gathering that convened Saturday will unify factions of traditionalists and reformers threatening to fragment the church over the issue of homosexual unions.
''The differences are real and serious ... and I hope the discussion will enable us to focus on the fundamental nature of our responsibility,'' said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, who is required to remain neutral on policy debates in his supervisory position in the denomination's General Assembly
The 560-member General Assembly is the chief policy-setting body for the 2.6 million-member church.
Issues of gay rights have dominated other major religious gatherings this year. The United Methodist Church last month upheld its doctrine banning gay ordination and the sanctioning of same-sex unions. In March, the Central Conference of American Rabbis voted to let rabbis choose to preside at same-sex union ceremonies.
Homosexual advocates said they are optimistic that the Presbyterians will decide to permit recognition of same-sex couples because recent rulings by the church high courts have favored gays.
''This church is so close to doing right. But then, they've had 27 years of discussion. It's time to decide - are we welcome in their churches, or are we not?'' said the Rev. Mel White, of the largely homosexual Metropolitan Community Churches based in West Hollywood that are not Presbyterian.
A group of Presbyterian delegates, or commissioners, will meet Tuesday to discuss proposed amendments to the denomination's Book of Order, or constitution, that seek to explicitly prohibit same-sex unions.
A fourth proposal up for debate suggests that churches be permitted to determine their own policies on ministering to gays and lesbians, said the Rev. Charles Proudfoot, a spokesman for the assembly.
The committee's recommendations will go to the full assembly later this week, where approval would require a simple majority.
If the measures are passed, they would go before the ordained Presbyterian ministers and elders nationwide for approval.
Opponents to same-sex unions argue the church should not condone homosexual couples because their lifestyles conflict with biblical principles.
''I believe same-sex unions are just a way to get people to start approving of (gay) marriages, and that's just not appropriate,'' said the Rev. Greg Loskoski, of Savannah, Ga., a member of the committee debating the issue.
Supporters of same-sex unions plan to protest at the convention, saying church discrimination against gays and lesbians prevents them from fulfilling their faith.
Soulforce, a multi-faith coalition of gays, lesbians and supporters, has scheduled a protest Sunday where dozens expect to be arrested while forming a human chain and blocking one of the many entrances to the convention center following the Presbyterian convention's opening worship service.
''Gays and lesbians across this country are saying that if the church can't grow up and accept reality, then we don't need the church,'' said White, co-founder of Soulforce. ''We can find ways to worship on our own.''