New covenantal relationships will emerge
The UCC Constitution states that "various expressions of the church relate to each other in a covenantal manner" and that "each expression of the church has responsibilities and rights in relation to the others." Together, in covenant, all "seek to be faithful to God's mission."
On June 10, 2006, the Iglesia Evangelical Unida de Puerto Rico (United Evangelical Church of Puerto Rico) voted to disaffiliate with the UCC, bringing a covenant deeply rooted in UCC history to an end. The Rev. John Thomas, UCC General Minister and President, called it a painful and profoundly disappointing development.
Yet, even as relationships change and covenants are recast it is good to remember and celebrate the work of the UCC in Puerto Rico. That work cannot be undone and it continues.
It began with the outreach of the American Missionary Association, founded by Congregational abolitionists who rallied in 1839 to support the African Mendi captives on the slave ship Amistad. The AMA went on to establish over 500 schools for African and Native Americans and planted 200 new local congregations. In Puerto Rico, AMA mission work let to the founding of Ryder Memorial Hospital.
After 1898, when Spanish control over Puerto Rico ended, several Protestant denominations sent missionaries to Puerto Rico. In 1919 they founded the Seminario Evangelico de Puerto Rico (Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico) to train Protestant clergy for churches throughout the Caribbean. In 1931 Congregationalists, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Evangelical United Brethren formed a new denomination, the Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico (United Evangelical Church of Puerto Rico).
This young denomination was independent and ecumenical. In 1931, it became a regional conference of the Congregational Christian Churches, and in 1961, although it was already a denomination itself, it became a UCC Conference. Ryder Memorial Hospital joined the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries.
Covenantal relationships are not driven by legalistic rules and regulations. They are not based on creeds, but grounded in common loyalty to Jesus Christ. And within all covenants, as within marriage, painful disagreements arise - sometimes leading to division and divorce. In recent years, as members of the IEUPR found the UCC stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues increasingly troublesome, the covenant was stretched. Some IEUPR members tried to keep covenant with the UCC, but its recent annual Assembly voted for separation.
Yet, God is still at work in Puerto Rico. New covenantal relationships will emerge to preserve historic ties with those institutions, congregations and clergy who want to remain connected to the UCC. Covenant theology is never neat and tidy, yet it is the way UCC Christians seek to remain "faithful to God's mission."
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, editor of The UCC's Living Theological Heritage, writes a monthly online column on UCC history. It appears at news.ucc.org.