Faithful and Welcoming Convocation
John H. Thomas
General Minister and President
United Church of Christ
On the 50th anniversary of the United Church of Christ, the General Synod passed a resolution that, in part, reaffirmed
The Basis of Union with Interpretations and the Preamble to the United Church of Christ Constitution as ongoing, valued, and shared testimonies of faith that guide our common life and identity in the United Church of Christ. . . , and commends these documents for review, reflection, and study.
This resolution was proposed to the Synod by a number of local churches, many of them Faithful and Welcoming churches. It represented an attempt to remind the church at this important milestone moment of core theological commitments present at the creation of our church, commitments that continue to shape the confessional life of the church. The Synod’s embrace of this resolution represented – in my judgment – both an honest commitment to the core faith statements contained in these documents, as well as a desire for a reconciling act that might begin to bridge the gulf that had become evident after the 2005 General Synod between some of our pastors, members, and congregations, and the General Synod and its officers. In our time together today let me do what the resolution asks, namely, reflect on The Preamble and is on-going authority in our life together.
The Preamble occupies a significant and respected place in our denomination’s life. It is taught in history, theology, and polity classes to all persons seeking authorization for ministry in the United Church of Christ. It is read as part of the service of ordination to ministry found in Book of Worship, acknowledging its critical role in the “magisterium” of the United Church of Christ that is in the gathered ecclesiastical council of the Association that sets apart those called to be pastor and teacher. It has occupied a central role in the theological dialogues and full communion processes that have been part of the United Church of Christ’s ecumenical journey. It has resisted attempts at revision, remaining unchanged through numerous Constitution and By-law amendment processes with the exception of minor editing intended to make the language for persons more inclusive. When amending has been proposed, the wisdom of those gathered has generally been that we are more likely to damage or diminish it than we are to improve it! For a church marked by theological curiosity and daring, and sometimes fascinated with novelty, The Preamble’s endurance is impressive.
The elements of The Preamble are well known. It begins with Christological confession and ecclesiological definition of Jesus Christ as “sole Head [of the church]. . . Son of God and Savior.” It grounds the church’s ecumenical commitment in that affirmation, “acknowledging as kindred in Christ all who share in this confession.” It privileges Scripture among potential sources of revelation of God’s Word. In so doing it also privileges the Word of God above the text of the Scriptures, “looking to” the Word of God in the Scriptures rather than identifying the Word of God with the Scriptures. It affirms the role of the Holy Spirit as presence and power and as that agency “prospering” the churches creative and redemptive work in the world.
The Preamble reminds us that the United Church of Christ is apostolic, “claiming as its own the faith of the historic church expressed in the ancient creeds.” It also situates us among evangelical or Protestant churches uniquely informed by the insights of the 16th century reformers. It recognizes our embrace of two sacraments – Baptism and Holy Communion. In all of this there is rich resource for reflection, much guidance for teaching, and a profound basis for claiming our place within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church as orthodox Christians in the broad sense of the word who see ourselves as stewards and perhaps even as “conservators” of the Tradition handed on by the church through the ages.
What is most distinctive about The Preamble, what makes it resonate uniquely with the culture and ethos of the United Church of Christ and its predecessor bodies, and what I believe gifts us both with great promise as well as significant peril, is the following phrase:
The United Church of Christ affirms the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.
God is still speaking, we might say. Or perhaps more to the point, in each generation the church does not simply receive a recorded text handed over from the previous generation, but hears the living voice of the God our ancestors spoken, heard, and followed in fresh, new, and compelling ways. In the 5th century St. Leo the Great put it this way:
We are not left with a mere report of bygone events, to be received in faith and remembered with veneration. God’s bounty toward us has been multiplied, so that even in our own times we daily experience the grace which belonged to those first beginnings.
Even before work on The Preamble began the language for this responsibility in each generation was being shaped and tested. Co-President James Wagner, in a memo to the Commission drafting the Constitution as it began its work, proposed wording from the Joint Committee to Study Basic Christian Doctrine, groundwork that had been laid during the years leading toward the vote for union. It proposed a text for the new church which read in part,
In the freedom inherent in the Gospel, we acknowledge our dependence upon the Holy Scriptures, our kinship with those in the history of the Church who have given various accounts of the nature of the faith, and our continued obligation to give fresh and valid expression to the faith which informs us. (James Wagner to the Commission to Prepare a Constitution, undated.)
Not very far from “the responsibility of the church in each generation. . . .”
It is interesting to note that ambivalence about how the historic faith is to shape or even limit this “responsibility of the church in each generation” appeared in the development of The Preamble itself. At the adjourned session of the 2nd General Synod, held in 1960 for the purpose of adopting a Constitution, an effort was made from the floor to amend The Preamble by replacing the words “ancient creeds” with “New Testament.” This would have made it read, “It claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the New Testament and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers.” The effort failed, but suggests the discomfort many had in the church at its founding with creedal definitions deemed too limiting to the freedom of conscience prized in some part of the predecessor bodies. (Incidentally, there was also an attempt to amend so as to allow for the use of the title, “Presiding Bishop” by the President. That didn’t go anywhere either!)
More interesting, however, and somewhat shrouded in mystery given the fact that the working papers of the drafters and details of the debates within the Committee and on the floor of the Synod are not to be found in the archives, is the one major change that occurred from the time of early drafting to final adoption. Originally the language of the Preamble said this:
It looks to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to prosper in the world its creative and redemptive work, and to preserve the historic faith from all error. (emphasis added)
This language carries with it a sense of warning, of admonition not found in the final approved text. We are left to wonder. Did this phrase hint too much at a kind of rigid orthodoxy, placing too much restriction on each generation? Did it suggest too sharp of a confessional definition, even proposing the potential for a category of heresy in our common life? If that is the specter imagined by some of our forebears, it is suggestive of a trajectory toward freedom, even innovation, that some to this day find liberating, and others find disturbing.
There is much to suggest that these questions are embedded in the confessional character of the Reformed tradition itself. The Lutheran-Reformed dialogue that led to the adoption of A Formula of Agreement, acknowledged that Lutheran and Reformed Christians engage the historic and the contemporary with differing accents. A Common Calling, the report of the dialogue on which Beth Nordbeck and Gabe Fackre represented the United Church of Christ, says this:
Lutherans tend to emphasize the function of creeds and confessions as providing the regulative pattern for the church’s common life; the Reformed traditions tend to emphasize the shaping role of the contemporary community of faith. Lutherans tend to focus on the sufficiency of the confessions of the sixteenth century; the Reformed traditions tend to focus on the need for the continual reformation of the church, (A Common Calling, p. 30).
To some degree, these differing accents are found within the United Church of Christ itself. Differing parts of our tradition “lean” in different directions, and each offers an “admonition” to the other. As A Common Calling puts it,
When Lutherans finalize and repristinate the theology of the 16th century, they need the corrective witness of the Reformed tradition concerning the continuing need for reformation and a fresh appropriation of the church’s faith. When Reformed Christians overemphasize primacy of the contemporary situation, they need the corrective witness of the Lutheran focus on the authority of the ecumenical creeds and Reformation confessions, (A Common Calling, p. 30).
Perhaps the most succinct way to put all of this is the way one of our founders, Douglas Horton, did while speaking of worship in the United Church of Christ: “[We] must think in human ways – and emphases in thought alter; [we] must in all things see that their changing forms are pointed to him who changes not,” (Douglas Horton, The United Church of Christ, p. 68).
So, God is still speaking even as we confess Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Indeed. It is not enough, says The Preamble, to receive someone else’s faith; we must “make it our own.” But in our apprehension of that voice, and in our response to that call, there are questions always to be asked. Have we dislodged Christ from his place as Head? Do we look to the Word of God in the Scriptures, or have we substituted other opinions or other sources for the revelation of God’s Word? Is it the presence and power of the Holy Spirit? Or the allure of other passions, desires, and liberties? Can we still recognize in that voice the faith of the historic church, expressed in the creeds? Or have we substituted another faith for “this faith” which we are to make our own? Here is where the church’s discernment is challenging but necessary. Here is where we often come to blows in the United Church of Christ. “New occasions teach new duties,” we sing, “time makes ancient good uncouth.” True enough, and clearly verifiable in many instances in history. But time does not make all ancient good uncouth, and new occasions don’t automatically render new duties “of God or the Holy Spirit.” Faithful criteria, and faithful use of those criteria are essential to the confessional character and fidelity of the United Church of Christ. We are free in Christ. But we are also bound in Christ to the church ecumenical in space, and the church through the ages in time. How is it that we find, to use another phrase from Horton, that “happy balance of creativity and solidarity?” (Horton, p. 71)
Which brings us to three brief phrases in The Preamble: “The United Church of Christ affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” What are we to make of these three phrases? Sadly, a few hours in the United Church of Christ archives did not expose much of the provenance of these three phrases. They appear in first drafts from the sub-committee of the Commission charged with preparing a Constitution, but none of the working papers of that sub-committee seem readily available. Correspondence with three wisdom figures in the United Church of Christ – Barbara Brown Zikmund, Gabe Fackre, and Clyde Steckel – produced the suggestion, likely correct, that the last phrase is from Kierkegaard’s essay, Purity of Heart is to Will the One Thing. Kierkegaard’s writings were experiencing a resurgence of interest at about the time of the drafting of The Preamble and it is probable that the phrase was borrowed, a fact confirmed by Horton scholar Ted Trost who found reference to Kierkegaard and Purity of Heart in Horton’s Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale, delivered in 1958 at just the time drafters were working on The Preamble.
Gabe Fackre suggests that the first two phrases can serve a hermeneutical purpose, demonstrating how the principle of “making this faith our own” unfolds in liturgy and sacraments or in theological work. So, for example, we see how our liturgical life, expressed in Book of Worship (1986) unfolds in creative ways yet always in solidarity with the Western Ordo and the insights of the ecumenical community most fully expressed in Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1982). This could also be seen in an earlier generation through the creative liturgical renewal sparked by the Mercersberg movement of Nevin, Schaff, and Harbaugh calling forth renewed solidarity with the church catholic. Or, we receive liberation theologies of various kinds and explore not simply their unfolding creativity, but also their solidarity with the ancient Creeds of the faith of the church through the ages. So, for example, Elsa Tamez can speak of The Amnesty of Grace as a reflection on the Latin American context in light of the Reformation doctrine of justification, or Leonardo Boff can translate the doctrine of the Trinity into modes of equality and resistance to oppression. But always it is an unfolding, a creativity that is in solidarity, not merely a novelty or epiphany discontinuous with “this faith” that we make our own.
Another way to think about this, perhaps complementary with what I have just described, is to view these three phrases as identifying three “practices” required for faithfully exercising our generational responsibility: the practice of worship, including the sacraments, the practice of disciplined theological reflection, and the practices of prayer, Sabbath, and the disciplining of the will that bring us before the presence of God. Or, in shorthand, worship, theology, and piety are essential practices for a church honoring both catholic substance and contemporary commitment. This is particularly true for the church’s ethical discernment that can, on the one hand, become trapped in the cultural garb of comfortable conventionality with a thin veneer of ecclesial blessing, or that, on the other hand, can spin off wildly after secular prophets
“In the reality of worship” situates us in word and sacrament. In our baptism we have been entered, introduced, or initiated into solidarity with the church through the ages and in the ecumenical embrace. At the table we experience the Risen Christ who extends that solidarity forward toward the horizon of the promised realm of God. Thus the “making our own” that we do in this generation is never an isolated act without accountability through time and space. “The eye must not say to the hand, I have no need of you.” It is the gathered community, not the unfettered conscience of the solitary Christian, that becomes the setting for “making our own.” Some in our fellowship may bridle at this, for the setting of the gathered community could be seen as an essentially conservative milieu hindering the free exercise of the generational responsibility. And, to the extent that our solidarity has remained limited to dominant voices and movements, the creative dimension of “making our own” can indeed be limited by conveniently traditional boundaries of race, class, gender, nation, culture. But “in the reality of worship” the solidarities of baptism and communion transcend and break through conveniently traditional boundaries and expose our parochialism for what it is in the face of prophetic and resisting communities often silenced or ignored.
“In honesty of thought or expression” points to the disciplined theological task that does not simply celebrate innovation or parrot the past, but always brings creativity and solidarity into profound engagement. Neither does the disciplined theological task flourish in the ghetto of religion or spirituality or even church. Honesty of thought requires curiosity that looks beyond comfortable and comforting intellectual parochialism. I’ve been told that Ben Herbster, successor to James Wagner and Fred Hoskins as first president of the United Church of Christ, used to describe us as “a risk taking fellowship.” Honesty of thought requires a self-critical dimension that seeks out the voice of other disciplines, even when that risks what has formerly been held and cherished. Theology after the Holocaust requires new honesty about the church’s deeply embedded complicity with anti-Semitism and the uses of its own sacred texts. Historical research that exposes the church’s involvement in slavery or its role in colonial and imperial oppressions requires reassessment of the meaning and use of certain Biblical narratives and theologies of salvation. Scientific discoveries within the cell or at the horizons of the universe call forth a new honesty of thought in constructing cosmologies and anthropologies. Honesty of thought brings with it a hermeneutic of suspicion that is a critical lens, even if it must not become the sole lens, for each generation.
To make this faith our own requires the mutual affirmation and admonition of sacramentally formed community and the self-critical discipline of honest thought and expression. Finally, it calls for the practices of piety that bring us before God’s sovereignty and God’s incarnation in ways that both humble and dignify who we are and the generational responsibility to which we are called. Purity of heart is to will the one thing, which is to will the Good, says Kierkegaard. In worship and theology we stand before God. With our Congregationalist forebears “we walk together in all God’s ways.” With our “Christian” ancestors, like Austin Craig, we resist human labels and divisions and in Christ “believe in cooperation-in fellowship in spirit and in work-with any people of the Lord. . . .” With our German Reformed ancestors we affirm that “we belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to ourselves, but to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” With the Evangelical Synod we pray, “Lord Jesus, to thee I live, to thee I suffer, to thee I die. Thine will I be in life and in death. Grant me, O Lord, eternal salvation.” It is the solidarity not merely with one another, but with Christ whose mystical presence, John Nevin asserted, we meet at the Table.
Reality of worship. Honesty of thought and expression. Purity of heart before God. These “practices” become not simply the categories demonstrating an unfolding of this faith of the church through the ages, but the essential “conditions” of faithfulness in the engagement of making this faith our own in each generation. Absent them we become beholden to cultural norms, parochial, self-serving visions, even idolatry. With them, creativity and solidarity flourish and The Preamble’s responsibilities, full of promise yet fraught with peril, become gift rather than burden. The great temptation, of course, is to make our theology the Head of the Church rendering the theological responsibility a zero sum game that makes schism a respectable option in the church. In his Beecher lectures Horton offers a resounding no, and for our purposes a last word:
“Purity of Heart,” said Kierkegaard, “consists in willing one thing.” In the purehearted church, that one thing will not be a system of theology, however important some systems of theology must be, but it will be Jesus Christ, (Douglas Horton, The Meaning of Worship, 1959, p. 145).
So we end, appropriately, where The Preamble begins: Jesus Christ, sole head, Son of God and Savior. Let it be so.
I am indebted to Clyde Steckel, Gabe Fackre, Barbara Brown Zikmund and Theodore Trost for their insights and counsel in the preparation of this paper.