A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
On gender and human sexuality issues the United Church of Christ has been a pioneer. Long before most other denominations were willing to affirm the leadership of women, our ecclesiastical ancestors accepted women as evangelists and ordained them as pastors. The first woman in America "ordained to the gospel ministry" by a recognized denomination was Antoinette Brown Blackwell. In 1853, a small local Congregational church in South Butler, N.Y. (near Rochester), felt that God in Christ called them to risk.
Almost 120 years later, the UCC took another pioneering step in ordaining an openly homosexual man to the Christian ministry, William R. Johnson. In 1972 a small local UCC church in San Carlos, Calif. (near San Francisco), felt that God in Christ called them to risk.
In each case, small local congregations found Christian courage to "do a new thing!" They remind us that deeply embedded in UCC history is the principle of "the autonomy of the local church"—an idea often misunderstood. Yet, the principle of local autonomy is one of the unique strengths of the United Church of Christ.
In 1969, the Theological Commission of the UCC produced a statement entitled "Toward an Understanding of Local Autonomy." "Local autonomy," the Commission wrote, "is grounded in the awareness of the gracious personal presence of God with [God's] people gathered in the local church.... Local autonomy does not mean the rejection of all authority in the name of freedom. It does mean the affirmation of freedom in order that the fullest possible response to the authority of God can be made by the local church."
The statement goes on to affirm that local autonomy in the UCC is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it allows local congregations to reject "a too emphatically juridical understanding of the church," by remembering that the church is "a community whose vital principle is love." Yet, on the other hand, "if one aspect is freedom from external authority, its other aspect is freedom for full obedience to the service of [humanity] in the service of Christ." In the United Church of Christ we are called to do prophetic things for God, and at the same time we are always accountable before God. One of the important things about the UCC is that its witness often begins because local congregations feel called to affirm their freedom in order to respond to the authority of God.
Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.