A little-known, but highly symbolic religious relationship in the United States is about to come to an end. The Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most active missionary organizations in the world and, with 16 million members, the largest Protestant denomination in America, has announced it intends to sever its ties with the Baptist Convention of Washington, D.C.
The decision is significant, because for 125 years, the D.C. Baptist Convention has been a bridge between conservative Southern Baptists and their moderate counterparts, the "American Baptists".
The split between conservative and moderate Baptists may be permanent.
In the Baptist faith, a "convention" is a bit like a club. It's a voluntary association of individual Baptist churches that have come together to pool their financial and educational resources. Each church in a convention remains completely autonomous and is free, therefore, to leave the convention any time it chooses.
At the same time, a convention is free to deny membership to a church, if the convention's leaders disagree with that church's members on a particular issue.
Choice is the center-piece of Baptist life," says James Dunn, a professor of religion at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and a Baptist. "Baptists value freedom more than any other single virtue. And so they're free to split and do their own thing."
In America, state conventions like the D.C. Convention get together to form national conventions. Two of the biggest are the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, based in Georgia, and the moderate Organization of American Baptist Churches, formerly known as the Northern Baptist Convention, based in Pennsylvania.
Both groups send missionaries all over the world, but the Southern Baptists are far more active. They say last year alone, they converted 451,000 people, from more than 200 different countries.
Nowadays, American and Southern Baptist churches can be found all over the United States. But James Dunn says when the two groups were founded, they had strong, regional identities, because Baptists split over the issue of slavery. Those in the South believed it was acceptable for Christians to own slaves, and those in the North did not.
"Baptists were all together in the United States from 1814 'til 1845...very brief little span...31 years," Mr. Dunn says. "And then Southern Baptists and American Baptists, then Northern Baptists, split over slavery. And that has been slavery, and then subsequently race relations, has been the biggest stumbling stone for cooperation between then Northern Baptists and then Southern Baptists. Although not the only one."
The Southern Baptist Convention has made some solid attempts in recent years to recruit African-American churches. Still, 95 percent of the convention's members - and its entire leadership - are white. By contrast, whites make up less than half of the membership of the American Baptist Convention.
Southern Baptists do not believe women should be allowed to preach, and they discourage partnerships with non-Christian groups - positions that American Baptists strongly disagree with. Because of these differences, state conventions have always aligned themselves with either the Southern Baptist Convention or the American Baptist Convention - but never both.
The one exception to this rule is the D.C. Convention, which has been a member of both conventions since its founding in 1877. Jeff Haggray is the executive director of the D.C. Convention and says northern and southern Baptists in Washington very deliberately came together after the Civil War and held themselves up as a model for everyone else in the country.
"In 1877, the division between North and South in this country, as we know, was very acute," he said. "That's an understatement. Nevertheless, among Christians, who were Baptists in the nation's capital, they felt that a union between them, Northern and Southern Baptists, was so vital, so meaningful. It represented something powerful about our religious faith to bring people together, despite political and cultural differences."
The D.C. Baptist Convention has been working hard ever since to maintain that union between the two Baptist groups which have become increasingly different from one another. The job hasn't been easy, and in recent years, the Southern Baptist Convention has criticized the D.C. Convention for embracing American Baptist ideas.
Martin King, spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention, says it has become impossible for an individual church, or a state convention like the one in Washington, to embrace the teachings of both the Southern and the American Baptist Conventions.
"We're not in the same place," Mr. King says. "It's like standing with one foot on the pier and one on a boat. And one of these two is moving, and I can't continue to stand here with one foot on the boat and one foot on the pier. This relationship is dying."
Indeed, as of next year, the relationship between the Southern and D.C. Baptist Conventions will be dead. The Southern Baptist Convention has announced it will no longer work with the D.C. Convention to build churches in and around Washington. That decision will cost the D.C. Convention about $475,000 a year - or about a third of its annual budget.
But Jeff Haggray of the D.C. Convention says the loss of funding isn't the most unfortunate aspect of the break-up. Reverend Haggray says what's really unfortunate is that conservative and moderate Baptists have lost a piece of common ground, and that the only thing they'll probably ever agree on is their right to disagree.