Have denominations, like the UCC, outlived their usefulness?
In a letter published in United Church News' December issue, the Rev. Jim Smucker, 81, who spent a combined 24 years as a Conference Minister in New York and the Pacific Northwest, wrote, "I don't know what the future holds and I have no desire to promote the starting of new religious forms and shapes. [But] I do believe strongly that the present forms and shapes coming out of a 16th-century spiritual Reformation are dated, rigid and no longer very relevant to today's knowledge and needs."
William C. Winslow, a frequent United Church News contributing writer, contacted Smucker, a member of The United Churches (UCC/Presbyterian) in Olympia, Wash., and asked him to expand on his thesis.
Winslow: You label denominations as anachronisms, right?
Smucker: An anachronism is something that is out of sync with the times in which it exists. Denominationalism is essentially a 16th- and 17th-century phenomenon [resulting from the Protestant Reformation] so trying to maintain that history as a rationale for existence is out of place in this new century.
I think, for the most part, denominations still look back to that history. Their foundation is to be "preservers of the past" rather than "seekers of new truth." We still think Christianity is the final truth and we still sing imperialistic and triumphal hymns. So, in that sense, I think denominations are an anachronism.
At the same time I recognize that many denominations are trying to be relevant in this new century, particularly in my experience with the UCC. We are trying hard to be responsive to what's happening in the world, but I think we are missing some of the issues we ought to be dealing with.
What kinds of issues?
The UCC has been sensitive to new perceptions of God in a universe of billions of galaxies and has taken the lead in breaking down traditional social barriers like the gay/lesbian issue and many other justice issues, and I think that's great. Of the denominations that exist, the UCC is the one I most want to be a part of.
But where I think we and other denominations have failed is in the need to reinterpret our perception of God as a father who is up there, looking down and sending his son to die for us. We must recognize that, in this tremendous cosmos, there is a spiritual undergirding that is interrelating, that is connecting all of us to one another and to the natural world and all of creation, a creative spirit that is continuing to create, which makes nonsense of the dogma that Jesus was the one and only final truth. For me, Jesus' life and teaching draw us closer to life's meaning and purpose than any other Western world experience, but it is not the only truth moment in history and there is much more to be revealed.
What we need to learn is how we can identify with and relate to that creative spirit which calls people to relate to one another and to share across faith lines in meeting human needs and standing firm for justice. This is happening in a lot of local churches. I'm thinking of churches where the emphasis is on the creation of a loving community where the children's stories speak about the love of the spirit which calls us to be a part of a loving world and calls us to risk in working for justice and peace for everyone. Denominations have not discovered how to be responsive to the presence of this spirit today, which is the Jesus Spirit, rather than traditional denominational duties, including the preservation of dogmas from the past.
Don't denominations bring together like-minded people into a structure that is manageable?
I have no problem with that idea. But the truth seekers—the ones who have a vision of a cosmos that's beyond our imagination and the ones who have a sense of a spiritual undergirding that is not dependent on traditional Christianity but works for relationships with people across faith lines all over the world who have the same dream—those people need to be getting together and finding common ways to work together for sharing, meeting human needs and securing justice for all. I am not talking about one world religion but about people of all religions sharing in their common concern for human welfare.
I don't know what the alternative is to present denominational structuring. I just feel it's not relevant, and I think the response of people financially and otherwise is saying this.
Do you see denominations withering away in the next 25 years?
I see a slow erosion leading to mergers motivated by financial expediency and a desire to preserve the purity of the faith, unless there is a radical change in the way we operate. Somewhere, leaders will arise to call truth seekers together across faith lines from all over the world. In 25 or 50 years they won't be around unless there are radically different ways in which we operate.
We have a tremendous legacy which may now be only a memory of non-violence in India through Gandhi and the Hindu faith. We have the same legacy of faith, or maybe only a memory from the U.S. civil rights movement under Martin Luther King, where the power of non-violence and a spiritual reality inter-flows among people, giving them the courage to die for a vision of love and justice.
Now, how can those resources be tapped so that globally we can begin to think in terms of the common dreams and needs of all people? The church ought to be talking about the next century but seems more intent on preserving the past.