By Ronnie Cohen
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As throngs of religious conservatives break from the U.S. Presbyterian Church over the ordination of gay ministers, a small gay-led California parish is staging a schism of its own, saying the church has done too little to accept homosexuality.
The West Hollywood Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles plans to formally join the ranks of the more liberal United Church of Christ on Saturday.
"I can't wait" said the Reverend Dan Smith, a gay pastor who has led the congregation with 57 members since the 1980s. "It's like being released from an abusive relationship," he said. "We're ready to be set free."
Clearing a last hurdle for the defection, a regional governing body called the Presbytery of the Pacific voted on Tuesday to let the 99-year-old parish keep property belonging to the parent church when it makes the move.
West Hollywood is the first congregation to leave the fold to join a more liberal church under a so-called "gracious-dismissal" policy church elders devised to avoid contentious lawsuits over congregations seeking to leave the denomination.
Questions about homosexual ordination and same-sex unions have deeply divided the U.S. Presbyterian Church and its 2 million members, along with other mainstream Protestant denominations in the United States.
The church formally opened the ranks of its clergy to homosexuals last spring, prompting dozens of congregations around the country to split off to join more conservative denominations or to form a new one of their own.
While the U.S. Presbyterian Church allows its ministers to bless gay unions, it prohibits them from performing same-sex marriages.
By contrast, the United Church of Christ allows gay and lesbian weddings and has long welcomed gay clergy.
'NOT SAD FOR THE CONGREGATION'
The Presbyterian Church's highest court recently ordered the Reverend Jane Spahr rebuked for performing state-sanctioned gay and lesbian marriages in California, including the marriage of the Reverend Lisa Bove and Renna Killen.
Bove, Killen and their 10- and 13-year-old daughters belong to the West Hollywood church, and Smith officiated at their wedding alongside Spahr. As a lifelong Presbyterian, Bove, 51, said she felt sad about her church's move.
"But I'm not sad for the congregation," she said. "All people deserve the chance to be loved, to know that their parent church body is proud of them and celebrates their gifts.
"The United Church of Christ is proud to have us. Presbyterians are just waking up to tolerate us. We want our gifts celebrated, not just simply tolerated."
The Reverend Tom Eggebeen, who served as chairman of a Presbytery group that negotiated the terms of West Hollywood's dismissal, said the parent church remained a hostile environment for gays and lesbians.
"I'm heartbroken that West Hollywood left. I'm even more heartbroken that after 40 years of blood, sweat and tears, we aren't farther along the road," he said.
The Reverend Mark Brewer, also a member of the group that negotiated the dismissal, supports the parent church's opposition to same-sex marriage and said he thought the congregation would "find the peace in the United Church of Christ that they wouldn't find in the Presbyterian Church."
The Kentucky-based denomination has endured other splits in its history, including schisms over slavery and the ordination of women. Presbyterians led the charge for civil rights in the 1960s, but have lagged far behind on gay rights, Smith said.
"We so deserve to be part of a denomination where we do not have to spend all our time and energy fighting for our rightful place at Christ's table," he said. "We're the first, but we won't be the last progressive church to leave."
A website for the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a conservative advocacy group, lists 35 parishes that had started the process of separating from the denomination between July and March.
(Reporting and writing by Ronnie Cohen; Editing by Steve Gorman, Todd Eastham and Lisa Shumaker)