John Thomas: ‘A United Church That Stands For Something’

Early this week I read a memorial tribute to Dale Turner, a colleague in the United Church of Christ who had a distinguished career in Seattle as pastor of University Congregational Church and as a columnist for The Seattle Times for over twenty years. I was struck by a quote attributed to Dale reflecting on his willingness to speak out on tough moral issues, including support for the civil rights movement and for the rights of gay and lesbian persons, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Dale said, “A divided church that stands for something is better than a united church that stands for nothing.” That’s a challenging and provocative statement. And I can hear most of you saying what I found myself thinking, “yes, but. . . .” Yet doesn’t this statement capture in a compelling way what we’ve been struggling with as a church? Yearning for unity? Seeking to stand for a world of justice and peace? Can’t we have it all? A divided church that stands for something is better than a united church that stands for nothing. How about a united church that stands for something?

The source of this quote was not, by the way, a harsh, stern, unbending prophet, caring more for agendas than for people, but a pastor deeply admired for his compassion for all. Other words attributed to him include this admonition: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” He once said his guiding belief was that “when we draw closer to one another, we draw closer to the God that created us all.” No, by all accounts this was a kind and caring pastor who reached out to folks at both ends of the political, economic, and ideological spectrum. He loved the church and he cared for its health and its wholeness. But when it came to the great moral issues of his day, he would not sacrifice principle for placidness. How is it that we bear witness to the unity of Christ’s church which is, after all, an article of our confession, not simply a product of our labors? And how do we do that in the midst of the call to address complex moral and political issues that divide us, each wielding what seem to us to be authoritative interpretations of Scripture? As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the United Church of Christ, the enduring question we have wrestled with has been this: “How can we be a united church that stands for something?”

This is not a new problem in America where we mix our belief that the Bible is authoritative on all matters of faith and practice with our high regard for individual freedom that is reluctant to grant any interpreter ultimate authority. Mark Noll, in a new book on theological issues in the Civil War, shares an outsider’s perspective on the American Protestant dilemma:

In their perceptions of the theological crisis of the Civil War, foreign observers clearly identified a significant issue. How, in fact, are Bible believers, especially Protestant Bible believers, supposed to act in harmony when interpretations of the Bible seem to fly nearly everywhere – when as the Europeans put it in the 1860’s, there is no “respected authority,” no “respect for the established orders and authorities? (Mark Noll, The Civil War as Theological Crisis.)

The subject here is slavery. But almost any other hot-button issue could replace it. And has! If everyone has equal access to the Bible, and if there is no single, “respected authority,” how can we expect to avoid endless division? In our weariness over church fights, when “interpretations of the Bible fly everywhere,” standing for something can seem too costly and unity grows seductive. Remember Rodney King’s famous plea? “Can’t we all just get along?”

Fifty years ago the General Council of the Congregational Christian Church met for its final meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. It was the meeting that authorized the election of delegates to the uniting General Synod in Cleveland the following year, the meeting that finally brought to a close the long years of struggle to give birth to the United Church of Christ. We tend to imagine the 1950’s as a simpler time in American church life, but to read the minutes of the General Council is to experience a meeting as full of contention and controversy as any General Synod since – including Atlanta!

The vast majority of delegates were eager to move toward authorizing the union with the Evangelical and Reformed Church. But a significant and very stubborn minority resisted to the end. They demanded that the minutes of the Executive Committee of the General Council for the previous two years be made available, not merely the summary they had been given. Having heard that President James Wagner of the Evangelical and Reformed Church had been given “assurances” of some kind by the Council, these dissidents were convinced secret agreements had been made and that their precious liberties as Congregationalists had been sold down the river to the stereotypical “Herr Pastors” of the German church. No amount of response from the Moderator could assuage their suspicions, so they went to what was, in the context of that meeting, to the “nuclear option.” They dangled the threat of another lawsuit. This caught the attention of the leadership which remembered all too well the decade long delay caused by the Cadman vs. Kenyon law suit in the 1940’s. So the Council delegates were reconvened at ten p.m. following worship and sat through the night until 7:45 in the morning hearing the minutes read aloud. One delegate lamented what this all must look like to “our Evangelical and Reformed” brethren, whose long-suffering over these squabbles was surely wearing thin. We haven’t had that much excitement at a Synod in a long time!

But it wasn’t just conflict over matters ecclesiastical. Debates raged over a resolution about an “Unsegregated Church in an Unsegregated Society,” which included the call for a consultation with all Congregational institutions, particularly in the south, to press forward the cause of desegregation. A resolution was passed expressing outrage that one of the Black delegates had been denied accommodation in an Omaha hotel, and lively debate centered around whether or not to take an offering and pursue legal action against the hotel. (Some of you know that we are in the midst of labor issues with hotels in Hartford as we prepare for our 50th anniversary Synod. The more things change, the more they stay the same!) Delegates passed a strong resolution denouncing the tactics of McCarthyism, naming the violation of civil rights going on in the frenzied context of rabid anti-communism. Think about how all of this must have played in the genteel south, or in America’s heartland back in 1956. They even welcomed to their podium as a keynote speaker, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union! I’m not sure I’m brave enough, or foolish enough, to try that!

The point of this little tour through one part of our history is simply this: There has never been a time in our life as a church when conflict has been absent from our life. In the 17th century our forebears in England gathered congregations of dissenters, separatists and Puritans who stood for a church that would be distinguishable from the culture religion of the established church. Later in that same century they struggled in New England over the question of who could be baptized, and they lived with a tense, uneasy compromise called “the Half-Way Covenant.” In the 18th century some stood for their orthodox, Trinitarian faith against the rise of Unitarianism, and as a result saw a “great departure” of their churches and even their beloved Harvard, a set of departures far more extensive than anything we have experienced in this past year since General Synod. In the 19th century German Reformed theologians at Mercersburg Seminary in Pennsylvania stood for the integrity of the liturgy and the role of the catechism against the enthusiasms of the revival tent and the anxious bench, and in the process provoked what came to be known as the Mercersburg Controversy that included the use of the heavily freighted word “heresy,” not a comfortable word in the culture of our United Church of Christ.

In that same century one of our congregations ordained Antoinette Brown as the first woman pastor in North America. Yet what we celebrate today as a principled stand for the full equality of woman was mocked and derided in the official Congregational newspapers in Boston. A few days before her ordination Antoinette wrote a friend, “People are beginning to stop laughing and get mad.” If you read carefully the bylaws of Congregational churches organized in the 1840’s and 50’s, you will find that many of them were organized by abolitionists. The bylaws of those churches not only refused to admit slaveholders to membership, they also rejected anyone who would not condemn slavery. New Englanders who went to Kansas went to stand against those who would turn that territory into a slave state. The famous name of one of our congregations there, the “Beecher Bible and Rifle Church,” testifies to the conflicts in Bloody Kansas that engulfed our churches as they sought to stand for something.

In the twentieth century our church gave formal support to conscientious objectors, not just during the Vietnam conflict, but during the Second World War as well. We stood for the rights of African Americans in the south to see their faces on television news and to hear their stories reported. We stood with migrant farm workers in California, marching with Cesar Chavez even when some of the farm owners were members of our own churches. We took a stand to ordain an openly gay man over thirty years ago, and have been standing with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons ever since as they seek full membership in church and society. We took a stand for language in our liturgies and in our hymns that would embrace both women and men. We took a stand against the militarization of right wing paramilitary groups and oppressive dictatorships in Central America during the 1980’s. We have consistently taken a stand for the people of Palestine, for their rights to a viable nation and a capital in Jerusalem, even when that has been heard by Jewish friends and neighbors as taking a stand against their beloved Israel. We took a stand against the wall that separated Germany east and west by entering into relationship with the Evangelical Church of the Union, a stand that literally involved us in clandestine border crossings during the Cold War and that played its own little part in the tearing down of that wall.

Standing for something. All of this has involved a cost, and that cost has been conflict and tension in the life of our church. We have sensed it intensely in recent months again. And what has made this difficult for us is that at the same time we have not been willing to relinquish our vision of unity. Ours is not a sectarian piety that signals to those who disagree, “leave.” The ecumenical vocation that fired the imagination of our founders still holds sway for most of us. For all our commitment to being a church that stands for justice, a church that works for peace, we remain a church yearning to embody Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one.” We want to be, feel called to be a united church that stands for something.

At the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order in Santiago de Compostela in 1993, Mary Tanner, an Anglican theologian, reminded us that “tension and even conflict will always be part of the life of the church this side of the kingdom.” And then she challenged the church:

We are called to stick with the pain of difference and live through it: “Sharp things that divide us can paradoxically turn out to be gift. . . The world with all its divisions is not used to such a possibility as this: that those on opposing sides should stay together, bear each other’s burdens, even enter one another’s pain.” If we are able, by grace, to live together in visible communion while bearing the cost of difference, never again saying “I have no need of you,” we shall get hold, at a deeper level, of a communion with a God who suffers and we shall be rewarded with an experience of reconciliation and unity grounded in the unity of God the Holy Trinity at whose heart is forever a cross. (Mary Tanner, “The Time Has Come,” Ecumenical Review, January 1993)

The vision of unity that the Gospel of John offers is of a Christ who, when he is lifted up, will draw all men and women to himself. But it is not to some happy conviviality that we are drawn; it is to the cross on which Jesus is lifted that we are also drawn. If the Trinity is, in a sense, an icon of the unity in diversity we aspire to image in our own life, then we must never forget that at the heart of that Trinity is forever a cross.

Letter after letter has come to my desk over the past several months complaining that I or the General Synod has eagerly and thoughtlessly introduced conflict into the life of the church. I do think some people in our churches really believe that leaders in the United Church of Christ and its General Synod cavalierly and recklessly seek to stir the pot just to get publicity and attention. We may have been the first mainline denomination to call for the extending of the rights, privileges, and disciplines of marriage to persons of all sexual orientations. But believe me, being first was not what this was all about. There would have been far easier races to win or medals to wear. This was about standing for something at a time when much of our nation would stand against. But not just standing for something; standing for people in our churches, in our communities, in our families who yearn to receive the blessing, and to live within the discipline of the church and its sacraments and rites.

Standing for something. While controversy over sex swirls around us, the war in Iraq continues. Conceived in arrogance and deception, pursued with an unholy enthusiasm rather than lament, it continues to consume our beloved children and sow destruction and disruption throughout the land we are allegedly redeeming, a place where civilian deaths are even hard to number. Horrible things are happening and we are doing some of those things. But what should we have expected? That’s what war is, what war does, even to our own noble sons and daughters. Neighbors throughout the world who embraced us with profound love and compassion after the terrorist attacks of September 11 now eye us with suspicion and fear, a dangerous nation bent on empire. My son just finished basic training for the Pennsylvania National Guard. What once seemed rather abstract now cuts a bit closer. Will he be called up? Lynda and I worry that he might be put in harms way. But we also worry that he will be faced with an agonizing moral choice in the murky ambiguity of battle, a choice that could follow him throughout his life.

Yet are we standing for something? I fear that most of our congregations shrink back from doing much more than pray for the victims – our troops, the people of Iraq. To stand for something might mean conflict, tension, even division. Can we bear any more of that? But is this not a shrinking back from the cross, which lies at the very heart of the Trinity whose feast day is tomorrow? About thirty five years ago as the war in Vietnam was drawing toward its bloody conclusion, with the tragedies of Kent State, the incursions into Cambodia, and the deceptions of another administration growing more and more evident, I came home on spring break from college filled with the certainty, the conviction, and I suppose the arrogance of youth, and told my pastor that I wanted to read a statement about the war to the congregation. I still can’t believe I did it, and looking back through the lens of my own life as a pastor, I can’t quite believe he let me do it! As I finished my passionate and, I thought, prophetic plea, I looked down and saw the parents of my two best friends in h
gh school, Bob and Eleanor. Their sons were now marines, serving in Vietnam. It was a charged moment, filled with sudden apprehension, one of those “Oh my God, what have I done?” moments. Yet these were the two who first came to embrace me, not arguing a point, or offering a dissent, but embracing me. Can we be that kind of church? “Sharp things that divide us can paradoxically turn out to be gift. The world with all its divisions is not used to such a possibility as this: that those on opposing sides should stay together, bear each other’s burdens, even enter one another’s pain.”

A divided church, a church enduring conflict because it stands for something is better than a united church that stands for nothing. The great irony of the ecclesiastical landscape today is that churches that have quite deliberately avoided taking a stand on the issue of gay marriage or the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian people are enduring just as much conflict as we are in the United Church of Christ. Is this the warning to Laodicea in the Revelation of John? “I know your works, you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Some of you know that I have found great insight in the novel, Gilead, written by United Church of Christ author, Marilyn Robinson. Her narrator is a sensitive rural pastor in Iowa, writing a letter to his son. He recalls his best sermon, one that he never preached. It was about the First World War, and his own sense that the influenza epidemic that was sweeping the country with tragic loss, killing more soldiers than bullets were, was a sign of judgment about our warring madness:

The parents of these young soldiers would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow their sons to be killed by the flu. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us He didn’t allow something. But instead I would comfort them by saying we would never know what their young men had been spared. Most of them took me to mean they were spared the trenches and the mustard gas, but what I really meant was that they were spared the act of killing. . . . So I wrote a sermon about it. I said that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers. And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and grace of God. It was quite a sermon, I believe, but my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was. . . . I wish I had kept it, because I meant every word. It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it. But Mirabelle Mercer was not Pontius Pilate, and she was not Woodrow Wilson either.

Each of us, like this thoughtful and wonderful pastor, know the difficulty of “standing.” As Bonhoeffer once wrote, we know well our capacity to “heroically extricate ourselves from the affairs of the day.” Or as the hymn puts it, “our will to dare great things for God,” often collides headlong into “the courage that we lack.” Are we willing to sacrifice standing for something in the face of conflict and division?

Finally, at the end, we come to our Conference theme: “Neighbors at Christ’s Table.” It reminds us that our unity is not to be found in agreement, but in the Christ who makes himself present to us in the breaking of bread. We sometimes forget, I think, that this sacrament, this holy sign, has at its center the same cross that is the heart of the Holy Trinity. At the table we do not come to eat together as a happy family. We come to announce: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” At the table the broken family breaks the bread of the broken Christ. We are neighbors at the table of Christ’s passion, not just friendly next door neighbors. That makes this meal both a hard meal to swallow, and a blessed meal to consume. It is a table for neighbors who are ready to stand for something, even when that makes unity elusive, and conflict real. Ultimately we can only be a united church while simultaneously being a church that stands for something when we experience life together under the Word, a life together around the Word made flesh.

At that General Council meeting in Omaha fifty years ago this month, James Wagner addressed the Congregationalists. He talked about the way succeeding generations like ours might assess the worth of the union they had just authorized:

The real worth and validity of this union in the sight of God will eventually be measured by how profoundly and with what deepening devotion we set about getting God’s work done in this world. If by the witness of our united churches the world’s broken-hearted find hope and healing, the grieving have the comfort and consolations of grace made real, the aged discover that “at evening time it shall be light”; if young men and women are wisely guided in the choices they must make and strengthened when they have chosen the hard right against the easy wrong”; if men and women in the midst of life’s struggle are made “strong in the Lord and in the power of His might”; if the imperatives of God’s justice and love are brought effectually to bear on the relationships of men in our workaday world and of nations wrestling with the promises and the peril of power – that is, not in devising new and grandiose schemes for making the world better, but in doing better the age old ministries to which priest and prophet have always given themselves – then time and the event and the silent whispers of the Eternal God will confirm our present faith that the establishment of the United Church of Christ was the doing of His will.

I would edit Dale Turner’s provocative words to say this: A church in conflict that stands for something is better than a happy and comfortable church that stands for nothing. At our best, for fifty years, and for all the years of our predecessors before, we have often chosen the hard right against the easy wrong. Simply put, we who cherish unity, both our own and that of the larger church, have also attempted to stand for something. And it has brought us to the heart of the Gospel. There’s not always much fun in this as many of us have discovered this year. It’s a hard path, full of bitterness and strife. Yet Mary Tanner is right: Sharp things that divide us can paradoxically turn out to be gift. So we live as neighbors at the Table, seeking as she puts it “to get hold, at a deeper level, of a communion with a God who suffers,” anticipating the reward of an “experience of reconciliation and unity grounded in the unity of God the Holy Trinity at whose heart is forever a cross.” Let it be so.

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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