With a spirit of thankfulness and appreciation tempered by disappointment, on Saturday evening a humble John H. Thomas received the tributes of a grateful General Synod for his ten years of service as the UCC's sixth General Minister and President.
The celebration included music, singing, liturgical dancing and words of praise from UCC and ecumenical colleagues. However, it was a series of seven video clips from a conversation between Thomas and the Rev. Dale Bishop, a former Collegium colleague, that best captured Thomas' tensions and concerns as GMP.
For example, when Bishop asked Thomas about the tension between courage and caution, Thomas replied, "We privilege courage over caution. At critical moments we have been willing to be courageous rather than retreat to caution."
John Thomas gives his Farewell Speech
In answering another question, Thomas spoke specifically about "evangelical courage." "We need to be attentive to the whole mandate of evangelism," he said. "If we are not able to claim that mandate, we'll be a shrinking, declining church."
He specifically cited the decision to use the controversial "God is still speaking" television commercials featuring the bouncers and the ejector seat. "We knew that these would offend some UCC members," he said. "But we were convinced that the audience we were trying to reach required a different kind of commercial." As the video screens showed these commercials, the audience burst into applause.
The Rev. John H. Thomas receives "papal" red shoes as a goodbye gift from his Collegium colleagues. Dan Hazard photo
Many speakers spoke of Thomas' ecumenical sensitivity, both as the UCC's first ecumenical officer and as GMP. The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, quoted Armenian Archbishop Vickey Aykasian, NCCC President, as saying, "He is the best ecumenical leader in all the church."
To mark Thomas' transition to Assistant to the President at Chicago Theological Seminary, the evening concluded with a Litany for an Invitation to the Journey. In your ministry with us, the words said, you have reminded us that we have a legacy of early truth telling, that we must stand firm in our evangelical courage, that we must continually offer an extravagant welcome, that we're on a journey from safe centers to exciting edges, and that God is still speaking.
In his response, Thomas lamented that "we are not where I thought we would be when I began ten years ago," citing specifically a smaller church, our slowness in recognizing a new philanthropic environment, fragile ecumenical organizations, and a reluctance to address our vulnerable institutional life.