Puerto Rico Conference disaffiliation vote is 'deeply painful,' says UCC leader
Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico (United Evangelical Church of Puerto Rico), whose partnership with the UCC goes back more than 40 years, voted on June 10, during its annual Assembly, to disaffiliate with the UCC. The vote was 75 percent in favor of the resolution.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, called the action "deeply painful and profoundly disappointing," but said that the denomination "respectfully, though regretfully, honors the decision of the Assembly."
"The action will draw to a close the formal partnership between the United Church of Christ and the IEUPR, a partnership with roots in the work of the American Missionary Association beginning late in the 19th century," said Thomas.
Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico was formed in 1931, and was recognized by the Congregational Christian Churches - a UCC forebear - as a regional Conference of the denomination. In 1961, the IEUPR became a Conference of the then newly-formed UCC.
The churches that voted to disaffiliate did so because of discomfort over the UCC's stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
"Leaders of the UCC have known for several years that actions by UCC's General Synod regarding the membership and ministry of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians have been troubling to many in the Puerto Rico Conference," said Thomas. "Attempts on the part of UCC leaders to open formal dialogue and conversation with the leadership of the IEUPR were not successful. I regret this very much."
Despite the vote, some congregations, pastors and members of the IEUPR may want to remain in communion with the United Church of Christ. In the coming weeks, the UCC will consider a means by which those relationships can be retained or restored. The Conference includes 66 churches.
Because of Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico's unique standing within the UCC, as an historically independent denomination that is a Conference of the UCC, many issues need to be addressed or clarified, including assisting pastors and layworkers participating in the annuity and health insurance programs of the UCC Pension Boards. Since some clergy's UCC ministerial standing could be affected by the Assembly's action, some may need assistance transitioning to other health and retirement plans. Other concerns include UCC church loans and mortgages.
The UCC also has long-term relationships with Ryder Memorial Hospital, which is part of the UCC's Council for Health and Human Service Ministries, and the Seminario Evangelico de Puerto Rico (Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico). Thomas said the UCC is committed to finding the mechanisms for retaining these important relationships, if desired by them.
In addition to significant financial support of Ryder Memorial and the seminary, other UCC efforts to deepen the relationship with the IEUPR have included solidarity by the UCC's General Synod and its officers in the struggle to return the island of Vieques to civilian control, support for the release of Puerto Rican political prisoners, new-church start programs, the placement of Common Global Ministries personnel in Puerto Rico, a recent major gathering of Puerto Rican pastors and lay leaders, and participation of IEUPR members on UCC national boards.