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Marriage, ministry and Middle East are this summer's likely hot topics
While dozens of significant issues await delegates at this year's General Synod in Atlanta, the "3Ms" are emerging as the summer's most debatable and potentially divisive subjects - marriage equality, ministerial ordination and the Middle East.
Already, dozens of secular news reports have touched on two of the three topics: opposing resolutions on same-gender marriage and proposals calling for divestment from companies viewed to be profiting from violence in Israeli and Palestinian Territories.
However, another more-internal decision - a pronouncement calling for multiple paths of preparation for ordained ministry - is one that could top the Synod's list of important actions, so believes the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president.
MARRIAGE: Which relationships should be sanctioned, blessed?
Synod delegates will be asked to consider three vastly different marriage-related resolutions. One would explicitly define marriage as between one man and one woman; another would endorse full religious and civil marriage equality for same-gender couples; and a third would invite the church into a deliberate time of prayer and discernment on the matter.
The full marriage equality proposal comes from the UCC's Southern California-Nevada Conference, which overwhelmingly passed a similarly worded statement at its 2004 annual meeting, where Conference leaders also were instructed to bring the measure to General Synod.
"Ideas about marriage have shifted and changed dramatically throughout human history, and such change continues even today," reads the opening line of the proposed resolution, which goes on to spell out historical, theological and biblical rationale for affirming both civil and religious recognition of same-gender marriage.
The proposal marks the first time the church's General Synod has been asked to address the issue of marriage equality outright and, if approved, would make the UCC's General Synod the first mainline Christian body to endorse civil and religious marriage for same-sex couples.
The Rev. Libby Tigner, associate minister at First Congregational UCC in Long Beach, Calif., and a spokesperson for the Conference, says marriage equality is both a legal and religious issue that should be acted upon by General Synod.
"We believe that all people are created equal in the eyes of God and should be treated equal by our governmental bodies," she says. "This is a justice issue."
The proposal is certain to be met with opposition from some UCC members, pastors and churches. Already, eight geographically diverse congregations have joined together to offer a counter resolution calling the church "to embrace the scriptural definition of marriage."
"Throughout the scriptures, marriage is always defined as being between one man and one woman," the counter resolution states. "We find examples of those who violated God's natural moral order to their own detriment, but God's standard and definition remained constant."
The Rev. Brett W. Becker, pastor of St. Paul UCC in Cibolo, Texas, who authored the one-man, one-woman resolution, says he believes the UCC should be prophetic in its defense of "traditional, biblical marriage."
"We are the United Church of Christ and I'd like to see us be faithful to the teachings of Jesus," Becker says. "[Jesus] says point blank that fornication is a sin - and it's a wide term that applies to all sexual behavior outside of marriage between a man and a woman."
The Southern California-Nevada proposal argues that, throughout history, marriage has been an evolving institution. It describes earlier times when polygamy was biblically normative, women were considered property and interracial marriages were not only taboo but illegal.
"Ideas about marriage have shifted and changed dramatically throughout human history," it reads. Becker, however, claims otherwise in his resolution: "The scriptures never define marriage as being anything other than the union of one man and one woman."
Says Becker, speaking about his proposal, "We should be loving toward all people, regardless of what issues they are dealing with, and if we truly love someone we will encourage them to avoid those things that are contrary to the teachings of Jesus."
A third document, brought by the Central Atlantic Conference, takes a more-cautious approach by asking the church "to enter into prayer, study and conversation" about marriage equality, including a review of "cultural practices, economic realities, political dynamics, religious history, and biblical interpretations."
Asked for comment, the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, said he would not make a statement about the proposals until he has had time to listen to different perspectives.
MINISTRY: Multiple paths to ordination?
General synod will consider a possible "pronouncement" - a weighty statement that calls the church to its highest levels of conversation, action and implementation - concerning the adoption of multiple paths of preparation for "forming and preparing" ordained ministers. The long-anticipated, widely-vetted document makes a case that regional training and mentoring can be effective models, in some settings, for educating persons for ordination.
Like most mainline Protestant churches, the UCC has predominately adhered to a European model of educating its clergy: four years of college, followed by three years of seminary.
"The heart of this issue," says the Rev. Richard Sparrow, "is that, as we live into our goal of becoming a multiracial, multicultural, open-and-affirming, accessible-to-all church, the one-size, 4-plus-3 educational path does not adequately address the leadership needs of the UCC in all of its settings."
Sparrow, who leads the denomination's parish life and leadership ministry in Cleveland, says the pronouncement underscores the church's commitment to maintaining a highly educated clergy, but allows room for the possibility that there can be other effective ways to equip persons for ordained leadership.
"What it calls for is a deeper discernment of preparedness for ministry on behalf of our [Association- level] committees on ministry," Sparrow says. "It calls for a renewal and study of the [candidate's] in-care process as a time of formation and discernment. Committees on ministry are being called to a deeper understanding of their primary task, which is to concern themselves with the gifts, training, skills and abilities of those authorized for ministry."
Already, Sparrow points out, the UCC's Manual on Ministry outlines ordination criteria that includes the phrase "or its equivalent." However, he says, the church has had difficulty discerning, much less embracing, the word "equivalent."
"The grassroots of the church has been asking for this for 15-plus years," says Sparrow, who considers himself to be an advocate of the process, not the pronouncement itself.
The proposal does not call for a restructure of the church's three forms of authorized ministry: ordained, licensed and commissioned. More so, it opens up the possibility that licensed ministers - those who serve as pastoral leaders but often lack the formal "4-plus-3" education - could be ordained.
"We understand that for some individuals and some congregations that licensed ministry will continue to be sufficient," Sparrow says. "But for others, ordination will not be automatically barred based on formal education alone."
"We need leaders who understand and have a passion for the UCC," he says, "and that's not only a matter of 'knowing' but of 'loving' the church."
The Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, underscores the pronouncement's sweeping significance, saying, "While other resolutions have sparked interest because of their controversial nature, nothing the Synod does this summer will be more important than considering the ministry issues pronouncement. Nothing less than the capacity to provide leadership to many of our congregations in rural or transitional urban communities is at stake."
In November 2004, the UCC's Council for Theological Education, which includes the UCC's seminary presidents, among others, released a joint letter stating: "We agree that the traditional, seven-year, college/seminary path will and should continue to be the path for many persons. Indeed, we think it will and should be that for most persons seeking ordination."
However, the council recognized that other paths may be needed, even though deep consideration will need to be given to the specifics of these alternatives and their implementation.
"We also agree that other options must be developed to meet the needs of a changing church," the statement continued. "We believe that, in order to be truly effective, these options will need extensive further development, review and monitoring. In particular, we believe that the equivalency the church seeks should not be located in the preparation process but in the unique qualifications of the candidate for ordination."
Thomas agrees, saying, "Formal theological education in the seminaries of the church should, I believe, remain normative for the future of the UCC. But the diverse cultural and demographic contexts of many of our communities will require that exceptions be made."
Thomas says, if the pronouncement passes in July, then "the real work will just begin."
"The national setting, the seminaries, the Conferences and our church and ministry committees will need to begin developing the multiple paths to ordination called for," Thomas says, "and we will need to begin working on ways to help persons called to ministry discern not what will be the most convenient path to ordination for them, but what will be the most appropriate."
Thomas says the proposal will require money to support theological education in multiple settings.
"Access to theological education, in our seminaries or in yet-to-be-developed Conference-based programs is a justice issue for the church," Thomas says. "The question must not be how can a candidate pay for his or her education, but how can the church take both the financial and the educational responsibility for equipping persons for ministry."
MIDDLE EAST: Can the church leverage its portfolio for peace?
General synod will consider two resolutions that call for the church to use its economic leverage to express disapproval of companies allegedly profiting from Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory.
A proposed resolution brought by a coalition of six congregations in Hawaii, Montana and Washington calls for "a study of divestment of church funds from companies that profit from the perpetuation of violence and injustice in Israel and Palestine."
A second proposal sponsored by the Penn West Conference asks for selective divestment from firms "involved with Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the building of the 'security fence,' and the Israeli settlements within the Palestinian Territory."
If approved, the UCC would follow in the path of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) which last year voted to begin a study of divestment from such companies.
The Rev. Alan N. McLarty, Penn West Conference Minister, told the Los Angeles Times that the proposed resolution seeks to "affirm that God seeks shalom, peace, that will bring health and wholeness to all people in the Mideast."
Penn West's resolution affirms Israel's right to exist, condemns violence on both sides of the conflict and notes that the UCC has passed resolutions condemning anti-Semitism. The proposal also explicitly names Caterpillar Inc. as a candidate for divestment, arguing that it is profiting from the perpetual violence in the Middle East.
"[Caterpillar's] purpose-built machines have enabled, and are still enabling, the Israeli Defense Force to destroy increasingly more Palestinian homes and olive orchards," the measure reads. "One of these machines was instrumental in the deliberate crushing to death of the young American peace volunteer Rachel Corrie in Gaza on March 16, 2003."
The Presbyterians and United Methodists are also reportedly considering a "corporate social responsibility" campaign against Caterpillar. The Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) also could consider economic leverage resolutions regarding Israel/Palestine at upcoming national assemblies.
The divestment effort is being met with widespread disapproval from Jewish organizations. Earlier this year, when the UCC/Disciples' Global Ministries published an online study document entitled "The Palestinians, Israel, and the Churches' Economic Leverage," the Anti-Defamation League responded with a letter on Feb. 8 complimenting the balance of the church's background piece but criticizing the idea of "divestment as formal church policy."
"While you go to great lengths to demonstrate the many ways economic 'leverage' might be employed to encourage the peace process, there is precious little else," the letter stated. "We question why there are no alternatives . ."
The UCC Pension Boards, located in New York, issued a statement on its website on April 22, saying it "shares the goals of a lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis, strengthening the Palestinian economy and preserving interfaith relationships" and "believes there is room for a variety of strategies among the UCC's settings, as well as our ecumenical and interfaith partners, united in seeking a common goal."
The Pension Boards, however, says a "full range of possibilities" should be explored "before the church commits to any particular course of action."
"The Pension Boards understands that many of our members do not want to profit from certain corporate activity," the statement says. ". However, we view divestment - the intentional sale of stock - as a 'last resort' strategy, to be considered only after a corporate engagement or shareholder activism approach has failed."
A third proposed resolution on the Middle East, "Tear Down The Wall," sponsored by Wider Church Ministries, calls upon the Israeli government to cease construction and dismantle the massive security barrier the separates the Israeli and Palestinian territories and calls for reparations to those displaced by its construction.
Here's the rundown of proposed items facing General Synod XXV when it gathers July 1-5 in Atlanta:
Ministry issues: Forming and preparing pastoral leaders for God's church. Calls upon Associations and Conferences to make available multiple paths of preparation for ordained ministry appropriate to the diverse needs of the church, including traditional seminary education, regional theological formation programs and mentoring.
Proposed bylaws changes
From Executive Council: Create distinct Executive Council apart from Office of General Ministries board to provide fairer distribution of EC members representing the four Covenanted Ministries; reduce size of four Covenanted Ministry boards from 56-58 to 40 each (with 30 being designated as General Synod delegates); clarify process when incumbent executive is seeking subsequent term; clarify ecumenical representation at Synod; reconstitute Cleveland's Common Services Corporation board to be comprised of representatives of its user bodies (Covenanted, Associated and Affiliated Ministries).
Proposed resolutions to be referred directly to an implementing body
1. A call for environmental education and action (Northern California-Nevada, Rocky Mountain, Connecticut and Central Pacific Conferences) Calls for implementation of programs that inspire education and action in the areas of environmental justice and protection.
2. Called to wholeness in Christ: Becoming a church accessible to all (Minnesota Conference) Urges development of accessibility and inclusion plans in support of Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
3. Supporting congregations and providing guidance for stewardship of God's creation during the coming period of declining fossil fuels (Peace UCC, Duluth, Minn.) Urges exploration of how to respond to predicted decline in future oil and natural gas supplies and asks for programs in churches to promote sustainable alternatives.
Proposed resolutions to be referred directly to a General Synod committee
1. Another world is possible: A peace with justice movement in the UCC (Justice and Witness Ministries) Supports building a denomination-wide "peace with justice movement" that embodies a multi-issue and multiracial, multicultural approach to justice and peacemaking.
2. Calling on the UCC to declare itself to be a "fair trade" denomination (Group of individual delegates) Urges the UCC to become a "fair-trade denomination" striving to offer fair trade coffee and other products and official church meetings and official church-related institutions.
3. Calling for a study of divestment of church funds from companies that profit from the perpetuation of violence and injustice in Israel and Palestine (The Church of the Crossroads UCC in Honolulu, along with five other congregations in Hawaii, Montana and Washington) Calls on the UCC to study the desirability and efficacy of divesting church funds from companies that may be profiting from the perpetuation of violence and injustice in Israel and Palestine.
4. Establishing representative and senatorial Synods (South Dakota Conference) Proposes that every other biennial gathering of General Synod be comprised only of two voting delegates from each Conference, Covenanted Ministry and Executive Council in an effort to limit the church's Synod-related financial expenditures.
5. For the common good (Justice and Witness Ministries) Calls church to uphold the common good as a foundational ideal in the United States and reject the notion that government is inherently more unwieldy or inefficient than other democratic institutions. Reaffirms the obligations of citizens to share - through taxes - the financial responsibility for public services benefiting all citizens.
6. For the International Criminal Court (Potomac Association, Central Atlantic Conference) Calls for informed advocacy in support of the International Criminal Court, urges the U.S. President to restore the signature of the United States to treaty establishing the Court.
7. In support of equal marriage rights for all (Southern California-Nevada Conference) Affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and affirms equal access for all persons to the basic rights, institutional protections and quality of life conferred by the recognition of marriage. Also, calls on congregations to prayerfully consider adopting wedding policies that do not discriminate against gay or lesbian couples and on UCC leaders to communicate the resolution to legislators and urge them to support equal marriage rights.
8. In support of fair and just compensation for lay employees of the UCC (Central Atlantic Conference) Calls on UCC employers to commit to providing lay employees an annual contribution of no less than three percent of compensation toward retirement benefits.
9. In support of ministries to our campuses of higher education (Central Atlantic Conference). Urges Local Church Ministries to provide more resources to UCC ministries in higher education and to reinstate and retain a fulltime staff position supporting campus and student ministries.
10. Marriage equality (Central Atlantic Conference) Calls on UCC to pray, study and dialogue about marriage, including possibility of equal access to civil marriage.
11. Marriage is between one man and one woman (St. Paul UCC of Cibolo, Texas and seven other congregations from New Jersey, Indiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania) Declares that marriage is not to be conferred on bigamous, polygamous or same-sex unions, or on any union of human and animal, but is to be between one man and one woman with no exceptions.
12. Promoting peace for all in the Sudan (Justice and Witness Ministries, Wider Church Ministries) Calls on the Sudanese government to end violence against civilians. Also, calls on the U.S. government to intensify efforts with the United Nations to seek a comprehensive peace in Sudan. Asks UCC members to contribute generously to humanitarian relief.
13. Religious freedom for Native Hawaiian prisoners (Association of Hawaiian Evangelical Churches and Hawaii Conference) Calls on Hawaiian law enforcement agencies and governmental representatives to grant native Hawaiian prisoners in Watonga, Okla., the right to practice their native religions. 14. Saving Social Security from privatization (Justice and Witness Ministries) Calls for legislative advocacy opposing privatization of Social Security.
15. Selective divestment from companies involved with Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the building of the "security fence," and the Israeli settlements within the Palestinian Territory (Penn West Conference) Asks UCC's corporate social responsibility ministry to begin process of divestment from companies involved with Israel's occupations of the West Bank and Gaza, the building of the security barrier and the Israeli settlements within Palestinian territory.
16. Tear down the wall (Wider Church Ministries) Calls upon the Israeli government to cease construction and dismantle security barrier marking the separation of Israeli and Palestinian territories. Also, calls for reparations to those displaced by its construction.
17. The UCC is a Christian church (St. Paul UCC of Cibolo, Texas, and seven congregations from New Jersey, Indiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania) Declares UCC is a Christian denomination where Jesus is Lord and requires all ordained, commissioned and licensed ministers, as well as "students in care," to profess that Jesus is Lord.
18. The Cross Triumphant as the symbol of the UCC (The Congregational UCC of Candia, N.H., and seven congregations from Illinois, Ohio, Texas and Indiana) Reaffirms the Cross Triumphant as the central symbol of the UCC.