Written by Brian Burke
"Your internship mission, should you decide to accept it, is to catalogue the past 173 issues of United Church News into a database. At some point, these issues will self-destruct."
With that charge, in May I began pouring through the myriad of articles that have been written since the newspaper's first issue in May 1985. As a seminarian, I found myself involved in a summer-long course in the polity and history of our denomination's third and fourth decades. My seat in the denominational theater allowed me to see the UCC at its best—witnessing to the word of God in the richly diverse ways that the mission of God is revealed among us. But my seat also offered a view into the discussions, squabbles, tensions and battles that have marked the second generation of the UCC.
Many issues over the last 18 years have threatened to divide rather than unify: the relocation and restructuring of the denominational offices, the charges of denominational apostasy, the ordination of gays and lesbians, the periodic conflict between the national setting and the local congregation. In most cases, those on opposite sides of the fence have agreed to disagree; in a few cases, there have been irreconcilable differences.
Despite these differences, the denomination has survived because of its covenantal nature. The original concept of covenant blended the unique strengths and emphases of the original four traditions.
Today, though, the understanding of covenant seems to create differences within the UCC.
For covenant to occur, a certain amount of the local church's autonomy has to be given to the wider church in its role of furthering God's realm. On the other hand, the local congregation preserves and maintains its self-determination, even when this differs from the wider church. Finding the delicate balance between covenant and autonomy seems to be one of the greatest obstacles to strengthening our unity, in all its diversity, as a denomination.
Two questions of balance challenged me this summer. The first was in finding a theological fulcrum to accommodate the diversity that our autonomy fosters. The second was in balancing the reality of what the local church is (91.3 percent Euro-American, according to the most recent demographics) with the wider church's prophetic vision of a multicultural, multiracial, open and affirming, accessible Christian family.
As we strive to achieve balance between covenant and autonomy, one factor unifies us in our diversity. That factor is our common faith in the God whose love was revealed in Jesus' life, Jesus' teachings, the cross and the empty tomb—the God who is still speaking to us today.
Fourth-career seminarian Brian Burke did finish cataloguing all 173 issues to that point, and will continue this work while completing his last year at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis.