By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Presbyterians opposed to gay clergy split from the church on Thursday, announcing in Orlando a new denomination called the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.
More than 2,000 Presbyterians from 500 churches witnessed the launch of the new group, which was formed in reaction to a decision in July by the 2.3 million member Presbyterian Church (USA) to permit gay clergy, said John Crosby, president of the order.
"The problem is people are going to hell," John Ortberg, a leader of the splinter group and minister at the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, said in a sermon to begin Thursday's events.
The new Presbyterian denomination coincides with recent comments by Pope Benedict, head of the 1.3 billion member Roman Catholic Church, describing gay marriage as one of several threats to traditional marriage that undermine "the future of humanity itself."
Crosby said he wants to prevent ECO from being branded as a one-issue movement, though some Presbyterians see the opposition to gay clergy as the driving reason behind the breakaway.
"For the average pew-sitter, that's what they perceive," said Phylis Ritscher, a staff member at the 600-member St. James Presbyterian Church in Littleton, Colorado.
Mark Hawke, a minister at First Presbyterian Church in Olathe, Kansas, said "the underlying issue is how you interpret scripture."
Hawke and Ritscher were among many who came to learn about ECO but whose churches have not committed to join.
ECO leaders speaking at the conference leveled other complaints against the Presbyterian Church including excessive bureaucracy, complacency, declining membership and the tendency to become a "big tent" religion, accommodating all at the expense of their reading of scripture.
"The tent has become so broad that it's falling down without center poles," Crosby said. "The (needed) tent pole is biblical authority understood in the orthodox community and that has implications for all sexuality."
Gradye Parsons, state clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) general assembly, disputed the splinter groups complaints, saying church bureaucracy has been cut in half over the past 25 years while promoting several initiatives to increase membership.
"It saddens me that they are deciding to leave us," Parsons said.
In lifting its ban on gay clergy, the Presbyterian Church joined the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
ECO will allow churches to commit exclusively to the new denomination, as well as affiliate with ECO without dropping its membership in the Presbyterian Church.
The new group has no members yet, pending a process for individuals and churches to join.
(Editing by Michelle Nichols and Daniel Trotta)