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Sunday, November 9, 1997

Split could create autonomous state group, both sides say

DALLAS (AP) -- Southern Baptists' long-running power struggle between moderates and conservatives could widen into an official rift at the state convention that begins Monday, says a candidate for president of the statewide organization.

"I think that very likely would happen," said Russell Dilday, a moderate and the only announced candidate for president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Dilday added that a split resulting in a separate Texas-based infrastructure of religious educational opportunities, mission programs and teaching materials might eliminate politics and be beneficial to the group.

"It might clear the air," he said.

Texas Baptists' moderate-conservative split has been a source of rancor for years. Dilday was the head of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth for 16 years, until he was forced out three years ago by the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative leadership.

Conservatives say they are reasserting biblically correct positions on issues and religious practices.

Moderates question some of the biblical interpretations and challenge what they say is an anti-Baptist infringement on the autonomy of both church and believer.

Conservatives control the Southern Baptist Convention at the national level, where similar political conflicts have occurred, while moderates are strong in the Texas convention.

The state Baptist group's membership strength and donations are important to the national SBC and make it one of the largest state conventions in the country.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas has more than 5,500 churches, 2.7 million members and a projected 1998 budget of $47.8 million.

Some moderate and conservative leaders say changes both sides expect will likely push some conservatives into creating their own association with ties to the SBC.

"By this action, they essentially become the ninth largest denomination in America," said Bill Leonard, a Baptist, historian and dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina.

"What they are doing, effectively, is becoming a self-contained denominational body that is related to the SBC almost as an auxiliary," Leonard told The Dallas Morning News in Saturday's editions.

A similar schism occurred last year when the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia splintered away from the larger Baptist General Association of Virginia.

"That is what's coming, unless God intervenes or something drastic happens," said the Rev. Miles Seaborn, president of the conservative Southern Baptists of Texas. "Our commitment is to go and walk as far as we can and as long as we can. But there's a certain place we're not going to go beyond."

State officials say about 6,000 messengers -- about the same number attending the past two state conventions -- are expected in Austin to vote on the proposals.

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