The United Church of Christ

On Tuesday, June 25,1957, at Cleveland, Ohio, the Evangelical and Reformed Church, 23 years old, passionate in its impulse to unity, committed to “liberty of conscience inherent in the Gospel,” and the Congregational Christian Churches, 26 years old, a fellowship of biblical people under a mutual covenant for responsible freedom in Christ, joined together as the United Church of Christ. The new church embodied the essence of both parents, a complement of freedom with order, of the English and European Reformations with the American Awakenings, of separatism with 20th-century ecumenism, of presbyterian with congregational polities, of neoorthodox with liberal theologies. Two million members joined hands.

The story of the United Church of Christ is the story of people serving God through the church. Co-President James E. Wagner, a graduate of Lancaster Seminary, parish minister, seminary professor, and instructor in Bible, brought intellectual and spiritual stature, wisdom and brotherly warmth to match the generous personality of Co-President Fred Hoskins, gifted Congregational Christian professor and pastor, of liberal theological orientation and consummate organizational ability.

A message was sent to the churches from the Uniting General Synod, signed by its moderators, Louis W. Goebel and George B. Hastings, its co-presidents, and co-secretaries Sheldon E. Mackey and Fred S. Buschmeyer. After acknowledging the separate ancestries of the parties to the union and citing ecumenical “relatives” of both denominations, the message stated, “Differences in ecclesiastical procedure, which in sundry places and times have occasioned tensions and disorders, are appointed their secondary place and are divested of evil effect.” The union, the message continued, was possible because the “two companies of Christians hold the same basic belief: that Christ and Christ alone is the head of the Church … From him [we] derive the understanding of God, … participation in the same spirit, the doctrines of faith, the influence toward holiness, the duties of divine worship, the apprehension of the significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the observance of church order, the mutual love of Christians and their dedication to the betterment of the world” (“Report on the Uniting General Synod:” Advance, July 12, 1957, p. 22).

A Joint Resolution, declaring the basis of union, adopted by both parties at the Uniting General Synod, said in part: “Delegates of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches, in joint session assembled this day in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, do hereby declare that The Basis of Union with the Interpretations has been legally adopted … that the union … is now effected under the name of ‘The United Church of Christ’ … that the union be formally pronounced … in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit … that until the adopting Constitution … The Basis of Union shall regulate the business and affairs of the United Church of Christ …. ”

The Second General Synod at Oberlin in 1959 received for study by the churches a first draft of a constitution and approved a Statement of Faith:

Statement of Faith We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father, and to his deeds we testify: He calls the worlds into being, creates man in his own image, and sets before him the ways of life and death. He seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin. He judges men and nations by his righteous will declared through prophets and apostles. In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, he has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to himself. He bestows upon us his Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races. He calls us into his church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be his servants in the service of men, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory. He promises to all who trust him forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, his presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in his kingdom which has no end. Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto him. Amen.

Able administration by the co-presidents and intensive committee work by lay and clergypersons produced an orderly procedure for consolidation of boards and other program agencies. The Third General Synod at Philadelphia in 1961 adopted the Constitution and By-Laws and elected a devoted, hardworking pastor its first president. Ben Herbster, earnest supporter of educational and ecumenical Christian endeavors, always faithful to the needs and requests of local churches and pastors, would guide the “freedom and order” of the new church for eight years. Calling for unity, he would, in his own words, remain “experimental … seeking new modes that speak to this day in inescapable terms.”

The youthful years of the United Church of Christ called the church to ministry in a society barely recovered from a war in Korea, soon thrust with its burden of sorrow and guilt into another in Vietnam. Burgeoning and expensive technologies in a shrinking world seemed to offer the bright prospect of ever more familiar human relationships, with fleeting promises of time to enjoy them, yet generating ominous clouds of increasing crime, violence and fear of nuclear annihilation. The first years of the church’s life began during a period of unprecedented national economic prosperity and hope, when, during the preceding decades, new church buildings had abounded to accommodate worshipers disinclined to consider denomination important.

The constitution had provided for the General Synod to recognize the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries and the United Church Board for World Ministries as mission instrumentalities. Also recognized to do the work of the church were the Pension Boards and the United Church Foundation. Other program instrumentalities for the whole work of the church have been established, as needed, by the General Synod: Stewardship Council, Office of Communication, Office for Church in Society, and Office for Church Life and Leadership. The General Synod has also provided for such special bodies as Commission for Racial Justice, Commission on Development, Coordinating Center for Women in Church and Society, Historical Council, Council for Ecumenism, Council for Higher Education. A Council of Conference Executives includes the 39 conference ministers. A Council of Instrumentality Executives assists the president and Executive Council in planning implementation of General Synod and Executive Council (ad interim for General Synod) decisions. (See pages 32-33, 53-64.)

The priorities, pronouncements, and program recommendations of the General Synods throughout the 1960s and 1970s reflected a biblical sensitivity to God’s care for a world that once led Jesus of Nazareth to weep over the city of Jerusalem. Peace, ecumenism, and human rights walked hand in hand in the United Church of Christ during the 1960s, continuing into the 1970s, the last with a louder and louder voice. At the grassroots, many people worked for black and other minority justice rights, for the elevation of women to equal regard and opportunity with men in society, for just treatment and consideration of all persons of whatever sexual affectional preference, for a more humane criminal justice system, and for the enablement of people with handicaps to lead a full life. Local churches were encouraged to support local councils of churches and the work of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States, that had in 1950 united many efforts of Protestant and Orthodox churches.

On the national level, a Consultation on Church Union (COCU) was initiated in 1960 to “form [together] a plan of church union both catholic and reformed,” and to invite any other churches to join that could accept the principles of the plan. The United Church of Christ promptly joined the effort and COCU produced in 1966 a Plan of Church Union. By 1970, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the International Congregational Council had merged, and in 1976, COCU’s In Quest of a Church Uniting was submitted to ten participating American churches for study and response; in 1977, a Plan of Union was published. The consultation would continue and the United Church of Christ often reiterated it “would not do anything alone that could be done as well or better with other churches.”

In 1972 United Church Herald joined Presbyterian Life to become A.D. The same inclusive spirit became prominent within the denomination as well. In an attempt to bring young people more fully into the life of the church, the two former national youth structures (Pilgrim Fellowship and Youth Fellowship) were abandoned. In 1969, the Seventh General Synod voted that a minimum of 20 percent of all future Synod delegates and members of national boards must be under 30 years of age. This action has led many conferences, associations, and churches to include youth in decision-making bodies.

Increasing numbers of young people attend General Synods as visitors as well as delegates. Delegates under 30 have strongly influenced decisions. Articulate, committed young people have inspired and given new life to the General Synods since 1969. A 1980 National Youth Event at Carleton College rallied youth leaders of the United Church of Christ. No longer are young people seen as “the church of tomorrow”; they are an integral part of the church today throughout the denomination.

During a period of student unrest, strong protest of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, continuing pressure for minority rights, the initial upheavals of the women’s movement, and following national outrage and grief over assassinations of public leaders, North Carolinian Robert V. Moss, New Testament scholar and president of Lancaster Theological Seminary, was elected president of the United Church of Christ by the General Synod in 1969. Greatly loved, a gentle man with firm biblical conviction, he spoke with a loud anti-war voice and guided faithfully the church’s peace and justice efforts. With General Synod mandate, he called for withdrawal from Vietnam and for support of United States policies that would lessen rivalries in the Middle East. An advocate of ecumenism, he served with distinction on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches and supported its stands against apartheid in South Africa and for world peace.

General Synod VIII, concerned also with the faith crisis, racial justice, peace and United States power, and the local church, established a Task Force on Women in Church and Society, which pressed successfully for a General Synod mandate that 50 percent of delegates to national meetings and members on national boards and councils be women, and later for use of inclusive language in the church. The Council for American Indian Ministries (CAIM), Pacific and Asian American Ministries (P AAM), and the Council for Hispanic Ministries look after special needs and interests of their minority groups and offer their unique gifts of ministry to the rest of the church.

From the General Synod in 1973, a delegation of95 flew from St. Louis to the Coachella Valley in California to stand with the United Farm Workers in their struggle against farm owners and a rival union. The General Synod responded to the financial crisis of six black American Missionary Association-founded colleges in the South, by raising $17 million through the bicentennial17176 Achievement Fund campaign between 1974 and 1976. The fund also aided overseas educational institutions. The same General Synod voted bail money for the “Wilmington 10,” a group of eight young black men and one white woman who, involved in a North Carolina racial conflict, were imprisoned with a United Church of Christ worker, who was sent by the Commission for Racial Justice to help.

In the autumn of 1976, the church mourned the death from illness of its 54-year-old second president. Robert V. Moss died on October 25. Feeling keenly their loss, the churches received gladly his legacy of concern for justice, peace, and ecumenism.

Joseph H. Evans, secretary of the United Church of Christ, led the church as its third president for an interim period of 11 months. He repeatedly carried across America and overseas a message of unity and purpose to the grieving church and with pastoral skill brought comfort to many people.

Disintegration in the culture of traditional Christian mores surrounding sexual relationships and the institutions of marriage and family raised the need for a church study of human sexuality. Differing perspectives on biblical teaching rendered the study controversial. The General Synod in 1975 and 1977 sustained the conviction that sexual and affectional preference should not be a basis for denial of human rights enjoyed by others.

In 1977, the General Synod chose a vigorous former pastor and Massachusetts Conference minister, Avery D. Post, as president. A New Englander of poetic appreciations and ecumenical faith, grounded in a neoorthodox biblical theology, he was elected by acclamation.

The synod also called the church to responsible monitoring of exploitative broadcasting, public access and opportunity for handicapped persons, and the right to meaningful, remunerative work. World hunger and a threatened environment were commended to United Church Christians for attention and remediation, as was the social responsibility of multinational corporations.

A covenant with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to continue cooperative projects and theological and ecclesiological studies postponed a decision on formal union negotiations until 1985.

United Church Christians provided legal and moral support during the seven years that it took to win vindication for the “Wilmington 10.” After a 1979 national women’s meeting convened 2,000 women at Cincinnati, the Coordinating Center for Women in Church and Society was established and funded by General Synod XIII. By 1980, there were 485 United Church of Christ congregations of predominantly minority background, numbering 76, 634 persons of Afro, Asian and Pacific Island, Hispanic, and American Indian heritage. Between 1970 and 1979, each group showed net gains in membership. A decline in general United Church of Christ membership was believed to reflect demographic and migratory patterns in the United States.

Movements within the church such as the United Church People for Biblical Witness, the Fellowship of Charismatic Christians in the United Church of Christ, and United Church Christians for Justice Action help people of like perception and intention to find one another within the “beautiful, heady, exasperating mix” of the pluralistic church.

The church responded to these changes. Recognizing the urgency of Christian renewal and mission, General Synod XIII adopted a four-year program to fund New Initiatives in Church Development. Synod delegates expressed their support for women’s equality by participating in vigils to encourage ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Peace and Family Life, eloquently upheld by youth delegates, became priorities for the biennium.

General Synod XIV, meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, saw the election of the Rev. Carol Joyce Brun as the third Secretary of the United Church of Christ, succeeding Dr. Joseph H. Evans. At General Synod XIV the ministry sections of the Constitution and Bylaws were extensively amended, “Youth and Young Adults” was adopted as a priority, a new Council on Racial and Ethnic Ministries was authorized, a mission partnership with the Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea was voted, and such mission issues as the concern for persons with AIDS, justice and peace in Ce
tral America, and the evil of apartheid in South Africa received the careful attention of the delegates.

Delegates at General Synod XV, meeting in Ames, Iowa, expressed their concern about the farm crisis in the United States, declared the United Church of Christ a Just Peace Church, supported sanctuary for political refugees escaping from South Africa and Central America, and supported full divestment of all financial resources from all corporations doing business with South Africa. In a historic action, General Synod XV voted an ecumenical partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and voted a relationship with the Pentecostal Church of Chile.

Succeeding A.D. in 1985 was a new tabloid, the United Church News.

The United Church of Christ, through the ecumenical Office of the President and the United Church Board for World Ministries, local churches and individual members, continues communication and visitation with Christian leaders, lay and ordained, throughout the world, including those in the Soviet bloc, the war-torn Middle East, developing countries, and especially in partnership with united and uniting churches of Christ. The church remains a member of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

The United Church of Christ continues, a united and uniting church. God alone is its author, Christ alone its head. A biblical church, it continues to witness by the power of the Holy Spirit, remembering that “truths hitherto guarded in separateness become imperilled by their separateness, because they are in essence ‘catholic’ truths, not ‘sectarian’ (Norman Goodall quoted by Hoskins, op. cit., p. 33).