Chronology, which is the technical term for our words and thoughts about time, is strictly a matter of social convention, and cultures have counted years according to different systems.
Some ancient Greeks dated years according to Olympiads, which were four years long and began in 776 B.C.E. The Hebrew calendar dates from the year 3761 B.C.E. and progresses according to a solar schedule as divided by lunar cycles. The Islamic calendar dates from 622 C.E., which was the year that the prophet Mohammed moved to Medina. Because it follows a lunar cycle, a year has only 354 days.
Among numerous methods, some ancient Romans used the Greek Olympiad system. Others used a system that dated years "A.U.C.," an abbreviation signifying "from the foundation of the city [of Rome]," or "in the year of the city [of Rome]," traditionally dated to 753 B.C.E.
From the primitive church through the medieval period, Christians often dated years according to the Roman model in which years were reckoned forward from the founding of Rome. Thus, for example, what we have traditionally called 1 A.D. early Christians would have called 754 A.U.C.
Because the various calendar systems of the ancient Mediterranean basin produced widely divergent ways to reckon dates, it was hard to say exactly when a given event happened. We know from the North African bishop, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), that in 387 C.E., Easter was celebrated on March 21 (Gaul), April 18 (Italy), and April 25 (Alexandria). Fixing the exact date of Easter, and giving a precise schedule of future dates for Easter, was a longstanding and controversial problem in the early church. Various systems were used to calculate the cyclical pattern for Easter's date until 525. Then a monk named Dionysius Exiguus solved the problem by proposing the system that we still use today.
He also argued that Christians ought to reckon years forward from the birth of Jesus Christ, although he himself continued to use a different, ancient way of dating years, which was according to the "indiction" (originally a 15- year tax cycle, in the medieval period dated from 312, the reign of Constantine). It was the Anglo-Saxon historian and theologian Bede (672-735) who first popularized the use of A.D. (anno domini—"in the year of the Lord"). Its use spread slowly throughout Europe, gaining prominence by the 11th century, except for Spain, where it took another 300 years to become common. But where did C.E. come from? And why has it replaced A.D.?
The use of C.E.—signifying "Common Era"—can be found at least 100 years ago, but it has become popular in recent decades. As Christians and others have become increasing aware that Christianity is not the only Western tradition, it has made sense to many to switch the designation of dates from A.D. to C.E., and thus also from B.C. ("Before Christ") to B.C.E. ("Before the Common Era").
Does this mean that we are no longer Christian when we use the terms B.C.E. and C.E.? Not at all.
For Christians, it is still Jesus Christ through whom God comes to us with healing redemption. It merely means that we ought not force this confession on others, if even implicitly.
So, Happy New Year—in 2003 C.E.
The Rev. John W. Riggs is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Mo.
In February 1991, then-President Bush took great pains to argue to the American public that his proposed Gulf War conformed to the historic principles of Just War theory. The current President Bush has not made an appeal to Just War theory to support his proposed war in Iraq. He cannot. Pre-emptive strikes violate Just War theory. We are being asked to support America embarking on a war that contradicts the religious and military thinking on the justified use of force that has been dominant for centuries.
Taught in the United States War College as part of military strategy and forming part of the thinking of many major world religions, including Islam, Just War theory has been more than 1500 years in the making. St. Augustine was the first to develop an argument for the possible use of force by Christians. As the Roman Empire was under attack by invading barbarians, he asked if the Christian could justify taking a human life. Augustine gave a very qualified "yes" answer. Force could be justified "in defense of the vulnerable other." Augustine did not even include self-defense in the first list of Just War Principles.
It was another Saint, Thomas Aquinas, who added self-defense to the list of possible justifications of war by persons of religious conscience. His list of limitations and justifications of force are still the guiding tenets of Just War Theory. They are: Just Cause (usually taken to mean defense against an attack), Right Authority (established political authorities, not private citizens), Right Intention (not the love of cruelty or the lust for power), Good Outcome (there must be more good resulting than the evil done by violence), Proportionality (do not use more force than necessary), Reasonable Hope for Success (have a reasonable chance that peace will indeed result), and Last Resort (all non-violent means of diplomacy must have been exhausted).
No part of Just War theory supports a first-strike option. No part of Just War theory supports the "go it alone" strategic thinking of Vice-President Dick Cheney, first outlined in his 1992 white paper, "Defense Planning Guidance." This document proposes "anticipatory action to defend ourselves," that is, striking first against those who have not yet, and might never attack us. This clearly violates the "Just Cause" principle of Just War theory. Cheney also argues that the United States "act independently" in the use of force without global cooperation and even without coalitions of allies, if necessary. This violates the "Last Resort" tenet of Just War doctrine that all diplomatic means be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
Just War theory is a central part of the serious religious reflection, over many centuries, on the possible use of force. It forms part of the thinking on the use of force of almost every major religion in the world. It is widely studied by political and military strategists.
It is not surprising that the current Bush administration does not mention Just War theory. First Strike Strategy is not supported by any religious or moral doctrine of the justified use of force.
Augustine wanted to know if Christians could resist barbarians. If the United States adopts and acts on a First Strike Option, then it is Americans who have become the barbarians. We will have learned nothing from 1,500 years of moral reasoning.
The Rev. Susan B. Thistlethwaite is President and Professor of Theology of UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary. This colujmn appeared in the Oct. 15 Chicago Tribune.
Eighty-eight teens and 16 adults from First Congregational UCC in Guilford, Conn., built a home, among other tasks, during their spring mission trip to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss. First Congregational UCC, Guilford, Conn., photo.
Mission is a funny thing. Some receive a call without reason, others see reason but are still unclear about what they are called to do.
That isn't the case in Mississippi. Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., hosted the Pilgrim Fellowship youth group from First Congregational UCC in Guilford, Conn., this past spring in a life-changing mission to raise a house from scratch.
During the year, Guilford's youth group does local mission work in its own community. It then picks an impoverished region for a large springtime mission. Merrilyn Garcia, director of the church's youth ministry, is very clear about the calling of her group. Pilgrim Fellowship is committed to doing God's work, she says. And in hooking up with Back Bay Mission, most would agree it's a good match.
Compassionate service and social justice
Since Back Bay Mission began in 1922, its mission has been to serve "the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the wider church community by faithful witness for social justice and compassionate service to the poor and marginalized." A tall order to be sure, but why Back Bay Mission does this work is very clear to those who work there.
"The 'why' of what we do at Back Bay Mission has long been anchored in the prophetic mandate of Micah," says the Rev. Shari Prestemon, Back Bay's executive director. "It tells us that the Lord requires that we 'do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.' The example of Jesus instructs us further that love for neighbor is a mandate of our faith, and that such love must be made real by our daily acts of compassion, mercy and peace-making."
"Back Bay Mission strives to be a sign of love incarnate," she says, "offering a faithful presence among the poor and suffering in our community, and providing a faithful witness to the Church."
The goal, says Prestemon, is to provide a transforming experience that makes a lasting imprint on participants' hearts and minds, by putting a face on the issue of poverty and by offering an example of the church working with joy to seek justice in the world.
88 teens, 16 adults
Garcia and Prestemon met in the fall of 2001, and Garcia inquired about bringing her group to Biloxi. When suitable projects arose, Garcia packed up 88 teens and 16 adults from her Pilgrim Fellowship group and set out for Mississippi. The projects? There were six, including rehabbing a recreation center and building a new home for a couple whose home had been lost.
Megan Yuhas was one of the teens that undertook this feat. She has been on a lot of mission trips throughout high school, but Back Bay is her favorite. "I was part of a group that was building the house," she says, "and it was a truly amazing experience. It was hard work and everyone, including myself, often got tired."
Yuhas' group worked from 9 to 5 with an hour for lunch. The sun beat down on them, and there was nary a breeze in the air. But that hardly mattered, says Megan, as everyone was part of the team and everyone played their part. "It didn't matter what the work was," she says. "If people knew it had to get done, they did it. It was so unbelievably satisfying to see teenagers, girls and boys, giving it their all to build a house for an elderly couple. It really made me proud."
Going to Mississippi really gave her a new appreciation for her life, says Yuhas. "I've seen a lot of poverty, and a lot of homelessness," she says. "However, Biloxi was the one place where I had interaction with some of the people, and really heard their stories. It's interesting how you go on a mission trip hoping to change someone's life and, although you do, they change your life so much more. They give you a new perspective on life, and give you a whole new reason to be happy. Seeing people who have so little makes you really value the life you have. It also makes you want to travel more places and spread more love."
Nicholas Catino concurs with Yuhas. Back Bay Mission had a profound effect on his spiritual growth.
"The Back Bay Mission allowed me and my peers to experience a whole new society and to fully understand different cultures," says Cantino. "The people of Biloxi were the kindest I have ever met in my life. Their help, support and this mission trip were unbelievable in that every person was touched by this amazing community in one way or another. Friendships were made and it really did change our whole outlook on life."
Within five days, the group had framed up a new house, put the majority of siding on it, and completed the roof on the new home. They tackled a number of other major projects throughout Biloxi, benefiting countless low-income families. "The group was focused and enthusiastic," says Prestemon, "filled with a deep understanding of the value of service and mission."
An ecumenical group of Christian academicians announce radical departure from traditionally-held views of salvation.
Rejecting a centuries-old hall mark of Christian teaching on salvation, an ecumenical group of Christian scholars in September said Jews can be saved without coming to faith in Jesus Christ.
Claiming "Jews are in an eternal covenant with God," 21 members of the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations challenged the traditional Christian view of Jesus as savior for all humankind. Because faithful Jews are already in right relationship with God, they said, "We renounce missionary efforts directed at converting Jews."
"We know there has been a long tradition of anti-Judaism within that Christian tradition," says Joseph Tyson, chair of the scholars group and professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University. "It's based on certain misperceptions of history, and it's theologically invalid ... We're convinced that a re-thinking of Christian attitudes toward Jews is central, indispensable and sacred."
The 10-point statement, "A Sacred Obligation," marks the latest in a series of attempts to bridge historic enmity and divisions between Christians and Jews. It comes in response to "Dabru Emet," a call from Jewish scholars in September 2000 for Jews to rethink their understanding of Christianity. It follows also on the heels of an Aug. 12, 2002, statement in which Jews and a committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said attempts to convert Jews are "no longer theologically acceptable."
In the United Church of Christ, despite general support for the sentiment expressed, UCC voices take issue with certain specifics.
Dale Bishop, Executive Minister for the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, says that many in the church would not join the scholars in conferring special salvation status upon Jews in God's economy. Nor would many consent to tenet nine in the statement: "We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people."
"We recognize it to be a part of their tradition," Bishop says, "but that doesn't mean we incorporate it into our theology or belief system."
The Rev. Martin Duffy, son of a Jewish mother and now a retired evangelical UCC pastor in Easton, Pa., agrees that Christians shouldn't target Jews for conversion, because such "pressure" has caused undue harm through history. But he refused to join scholars in asserting that "Jews are in a saving covenant with God."
"Everyone has to be spiritually reborn to enter the kingdom, and that's not something you get from your genes or your blood," Duffy said. "At some point, you have to make a personal decision for Christ ... That's what Jesus taught, and he was a good Jew. He's my rabbi."
September's statement advanced prior, more parochial efforts as this time thinkers from six denominations—Lutheran, Episcopal, Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ and Roman Catholic—joined the cause of questioning the doctrine of salvation by faith in Christ alone.
Although Jews heralded the statement as a step forward for interfaith dialogue, evangelicals outside the UCC bristled at the apparent undercutting of a bedrock teaching.
"While that covenant [between God and Jews] is still in place, it in no way implies salvation," says James Sibley, Coordinator of Jewish Ministries for the Southern Baptist Convention. "If it did, why would God send his son to die this horrible death if it were not necessary?"
"Evangelical Christians cannot assent to a diminished universal significance of Jesus as both a Jewish and Gentile Messiah and Savior," says Gordon R. Lewis, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Denver Seminary. "The Jews were the ones who needed the atonement [because] there aren't any, Jew or Gentile, who live faithfully by the law. The law is fulfilled only in Christ, and only through the atonement can we who cannot keep the law be saved."
For centuries, Christians taught that God's covenant with the chosen, Jewish people had been replaced by a new covenant with the church, i.e., with all who believe Jesus Christ is Son of God, Savior and Lord. Such an idea of one covenant "superceding" the other has faded from both Catholic and mainline Protestant teachings as Christians since the Holocaust have striven to argue that God has not abandoned the Jews. The recent statement unfolds that shift's potentially vast implications for Christian teachings on salvation.
In applauding the statement, two Jewish respondents focus on one of the 10 points: "Christians should not target Jews for conversion."
Renouncing conversion efforts "is absolutely critical to the Jewish stance" in interfaith dialogue with Christians, says Rabbi Ruth Langer of Boston College. "It is virtually impossible to dialogue with somebody who seeks to annihilate who you are."
"All areas of relations between Jews and Christians were in effect poisoned by that doctrine of supercessionism," says Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, Executive Director of the National Council of Synagogues. By contrast, this statement, "I think is very heartening to Jewish people and for relations between the two communities."
Other points in the statement further explored implications of affirming a valid covenant between God and Jews.
Scholars said, for instance, "We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people," noting that land has never been key to a Christ-based covenant with God.
Signatories went on to say that "both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in peace and security in a homeland of their own."
The purpose of the Aug. 12 statement is to stimulate conversation at local churches and seminaries, both nationwide and abroad. According to Mary Boys, Professor of Practical Theology at UCC-related Union Theological Seminary in New York City, the statement could spark long overdue conversations about what it means to be saved.
"The worst thing would be if this fell with a great thud and was never heard from again," says Boys. "I hope it doesn't go the way of one more boring religious thing."
"This is just the tip of a very huge iceberg," says Eugene Fisher, Associate Director of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "God chose the Jews to be God's people. We should respect God's choice and try to figure it out."
|The 10 points of 'A Sacred Obligation'
1. God's covenant with the Jewish people endures forever.
2. Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a faithful Jew.
3. Ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today.
4. Judaism is a living faith, enriched by many centuries of development.
5. The Bible both connects and separates Jews and Christians.
6. Affirming God's enduring covenant with the Jewish people has consequences for Christian understandings of salvation.
7. Christians should not target Jews for conversion.
8. Christian worship that teaches contempt for Judaism dishonors God.
9. We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people.
10. Christians should work with Jews for the healing of the world.
To read the statement in full, go to www.bc.edu/cjlearning.
The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass., just received the $3,500 first place Templeton Award for Religion Reporter of the Year
There comes a time in every church's life when it needs a trained interim pastor. The transitional minister slows down the pace and facilitates healing and regrouping before a new phase of church life begins with a new pastor.
The first time the Rev. Susan De Simone served as an interim pastor for a church, in the early 1980s, she was fresh out of seminary, searching out an associate minister position. Instead, interim ministry beckoned by way of a small Connecticut congregation in transition after losing its pastor.
"I read everything there was to read on interim ministry—two tiny books," says De Simone with a laugh. The term lasted five months, but De Simone was hungry for more. She knew she had found her life's work.
Searching for more resources, De Simone attended courses on conflict resolution and other interim-related topics through the Alban Institute in Bethesda, Md. Now she serves on the faculty of the Interim Ministry Network (IMN), an ecumenical association based in Baltimore. The network consists of more than 1,600 interim ministry specialists, consultants, and church leaders representing 25 denominations, including the United Church of Christ.
The Interim Ministry Network serves as a group of peers who support each other in the setting of interim ministry. IMN faculty teach all over the country, usually in retreat centers.
"We try to keep the costs down for people who come," says De Simone, noting that course participants range in age and experience and come from all walks of life. The courses prepare interims for the developmental tasks a transitional congregation experiences during a healthy interim period: letting go of the past, determining the new identity of the church, shifting lay leadership, strengthening the relationship between the church and its denomination, and dealing with any troubling issues—and hopefully resolving them—before the new pastor arrives. The process transcends any theological differences between denominations.
"I think this is something that's very much what God wants us to do: work together," says De Simone. "The kind of leadership you need, the need for building the strength and interconnection, the need for honesty, transparency and integrity—all the dynamics are the same. We have members [ranging] from Unitarian to Missouri Synod Lutheran. I don't know of any other ecumenical organization where the clergy maintain their own identity, but work together seamlessly."
To learn more about the Interim Ministry Network, go to www.interimministry.org.
Interims help churches heal
The Rev. Char Burch, Interim Association Minister of the Northwest Ohio Association, has spent the past 20 years working as an intentional interim in the local, Association and Conference settings of the UCC, and says a time of transition is crucial in any church setting or situation.
"In a business setting, someone leaves his job so you advertise and then hire someone immediately," Burch explains. "Transition in pastorship is different. There are emotional and spiritual connections going on."
When a church faces losing its pastoral leadership, it first turns to its Conference office.
The Conference works closely with the congregation to help them think through what kind of interim leadership would work well for them. It can help prevent the local church from being overwhelmed by the responsibility of searching for an interim. Conference staff will meet with the moderator or consistory and talk through the emotions that may come up during a transitional time. There is often sorrow, anger or shock, says Burch.
Whether the transition is in the local, Association or Conference setting, time is needed to work through these emotions before adjusting to a new style of leadership. The interim's job may be to start asking such questions as "Why do you do that this way?" and "Where do you see yourself going in the future?" Inevitably, those left behind will miss some of the strengths of the former pastor, Burch says.
An interim period "provides the time to realize the person is gone," says Burch, "and in that space, new relationships can be established."
"We want the best for the local churches," says Burch. "We want them to be stronger."
Pastor hears call to be an interim
The Rev. Roger Nicholson will tell you he was dragged kicking and screaming out of retirement to his current interim posting at First Church of Christ UCC in Simsbury, Conn., but the smile behind his voice gives him away.
More than 20 years ago, Nichol-son made the switch from "regular garden variety" pastor to intentional interim. Nicholson says that without doubt, interim ministry is harder because of the two-track commitment. "First," he says, "you have the regular minister duties: preach, teach, baptize, marry, bury. But you also have the transitional agenda, which is important."
Over the past two decades, Nicholson has seen a change in the world of interim ministry. Interim periods are getting longer, mostly due to the diminishing pool of pastoral candidates. But churches also are recognizing the value of interim periods, and are receptive to the idea of regrouping before a new minister is called.
Still, when an interim arrives, says Nicholson, the church is so happy to have someone there that, often, they'll try to convince the interim to stay on.
Nothing doing, says Nicholson.
"Interims have to get [the congregation] to ease off, commit themselves to a process, not try to rush things," he says. "It gives the congregation time to settle and adjust to the change, give the search committee plenty of time to do a good job of preparation."
Being a non-anxious presence is paramount to being an effective transitional minister. "In the midst of all these dynamics," he says, "the challenge is to be relaxed, help the congregation not feel panicked."
"We're not just doing maintenance, holding the fort, so to speak," Nicholson says. "We're trying to get the church toned up for the next person."
Roger Nicholson is editor of "Temporary Shepherds: A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry" (Alban Institute, 1998).
Fund assists intentional interims in transition
As a trained interim minister, one never knows where the next job will lead, or what type of problem solving will be required to get the job done. But what happens when transitional ministers themselves are in transition?
The Illinois Conference has established an Interim Ministry Support Fund to help interim ministers continue health and pension benefits even while they're between jobs. The fund is in partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Wisconsin Region. For a maximum of three months, any qualifying interim minister may apply for funds to be used towards pension, health benefits, and sometimes salary.
To qualify for the fund, the recipient must have received training in either the UCC's Illinois Conference or the Disciples' Wisconsin Region. Churches are required to contribute 4 percent of the interim minister's salary (over and above the interim salary package), plus housing, to the fund.
The Rev. Connie Stewart, a trained interim ministry specialist currently serving Prospect Heights (Ill.) Community UCC, says the idea of the fund is to care for the core of interims who have chosen this ministry as their vocation. "It is difficult to work [as an interim] if there's no financial support in between," says Stewart, adding that sometimes the thought of discontinued health or retirement benefits deter some from accepting the call to this specialized ministry.
While the Support Fund is meant for pastors already committed to transitional ministry, another part of the fund helps those who are wanting to find out more. Each calendar year, five loans of up to $1,000 are awarded to Illinois Conference (UCC) or Wisconsin Region (DOC) pastors who wish to take interim ministry training. Once training is complete, the recipient repays the loan to replenish the fund. Even if the pastor chooses not to pursue transitional ministry any further, Stewart claims that the interim training enhances any type of ministry.
But more trained interims are always needed, says Stewart. "We can never get enough. Never!" she says with a laugh. The long-term hope is that the support funds will act as an incentive to nudge great pastors into a ministry that consistently promotes health and renewal in churches.
"We like to give this money away because we want to support the core of people who commit themselves to this ministry," says Stewart.
"At least interim ministers will know that in between times, they can get basic support," she adds. So far, the fund "has served to keep very qualified people in interim positions."
|The national setting of the United Church of Christ is drafting guidelines for interim ministry, sparking dialogue and input across the UCC, and putting folks on the same page about the responsibilities and accountabilities of the interim minister.
The Rev. Richard Sparrow, Search and Call Coordinator for the UCC's Parish Life and Leadership Ministry Team, says the guidelines will define three categories of interims, discuss the certification process of becoming an interim, and standardize the profile process. The guidelines are meant as a resource and enhancement for the work already done in the local church settings of the UCC.
"We depend on these skilled consultants, who do a specialized ministry during an important time in the life of the congregation," says Sparrow. "Their ministry is vital to the ministry of the UCC, to local congregations, and to the wider church. They're gifted, trained people, and we honor the important ministry they do in our midst."
Send news, stories and photos of events at your local church to Across the UCC, United Church News, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115.
The United Church of Christ was a minority of one 30 years ago when the Rev. William R. Johnson became the first openly gay man ordained to Christian ministry.
The ordination was controversial. Critics wondered if the UCC was taking a risk that endangered its relationship with other churches. Some feared the church would be drummed out of the ecumenical movement if it continued to ordain gays and lesbians.
But that never happened. Instead, a number of Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic churches have moved in the same direction, including nine of the UCC's partners in the World Alliance of Reformed churches.
The trend started with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Netherlands, which decided soon after Johnson's ordination that lesbians and gays could serve openly as pastors. Since then, the practice has spread to 25 other churches—among them the oldest Protestant churches in Europe.
Sexual orientation is no longer a barrier to ordination in the Evangelical Church of the Union (EKU), the German ancestor of the UCC's Evangelical tradition. Its territory includes the capital city of the Protestant Reformation—Luther's Wittenberg. Homosexuals also can be ordained in the Reformed churches of Germany and Switzerland, the forebears of the UCC's Reformed tradition. The city once known as the "Reformed Rome"—John Calvin's Geneva—is no longer hostile territory for lesbians and gays called to Christian ministry.
Most of the historic Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany and northern Europe now welcome homosexuals into ordained ministry.
Europe heads the list with 19 churches where homosexuals can be legally ordained. But several denominations in Africa, North America and the Pacific are also joining the trend, including the Anglican church in South Africa formerly led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the United Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Uniting Church in Australia.
Besides these Protestant and Anglican churches, at least three of Europe's "Old Catholic" churches permit the ordination of gays and lesbians. These are churches in the Roman Catholic tradition that broke with the Vatican in the 19th century.
Many churches have adopted uniform policies that expressly permit homosexuals to serve as priests or ministers. In others, the policy is either neutral or implicit, leaving the decision to a regional or local authority.
Practices are not consistent from church to church, but in all of them church leaders have either ordained openly homosexual candidates for ministry or signaled their willingness to do so.
The issue deeply divides some of the churches where lesbians and gays have been ordained. Open conflict has broken out in the Anglican Communion. The church's international conference of bishops in 1998 rejected "homosexual practice" as "incompatible with Scripture," but defeated a resolution condemning bishops who "knowingly ordain" gays and lesbians. Some Anglican bishops in Asia and Africa, despairing at the trend towards greater acceptance of homosexuals in the Episcopal Church, have threatened to break relations with U.S. bishops. Other churches have lost members and even entire congregations who feel they cannot coexist with openly gay clergy.
But in most churches, the trend is to recognize a diversity of practice—to "agree to disagree." In these churches there is continued debate, but homosexuality is no longer considered a church-dividing issue.
Many Protestant churches are still sorting out unresolved issues, with the result that policies are sometimes ambiguous or contradictory. Celibacy, for example, is generally not required by those German churches that ordain homosexuals, but some forbid gay pastors to live with their life partners in parish housing. That policy, critics say, has the unintended effect of splitting monogamous couples from each other, and sends mixed messages to the gay community about the church's commitment to lifelong fidelity as the ideal for human relationships. While the trend is towards inclusion of lesbians and gays in the ordained ministry, acceptance of homosexual pastors in Germany is often a quiet affair, not a confident proclamation that a consensus exists on the morality of same-gender relationships.
The 26 churches have a total membership of nearly 57 million.
Andy Lang is managing editor of the United Church of Christ website.
|Churches where homosexuals can legally be ordained
Anglican: Church of the Province of Southern Africa*, Episcopal Church (USA)*, Scottish Episcopal Church*; Baptist: Alliance of Baptists (USA)*; Christian: Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)*; Lutheran: Church of Denmark*, Church of Norway, Church of Sweden*, Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession (Austria), Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland*, Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany*; Old Catholic: Old Catholic Church of Austria, Old Catholic Church in the Netherlands*, Old Catholic Diocese of Germany*; Reformed and United: Evangelical Church of the Helvetic Confession (Austria), Evangelical Church of the Union (Germany)*, Evangelical Reformed Church (Germany)*, Evangelical Reformed Churches of Switzerland*, Evangelical Waldensian Church (Italy)*, Netherlands Reformed Church, Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, Remonstrant Brotherhood (Netherlands), Uniting Church in Australia*, United Church of Canada, United Church of Christ (USA)*, United Protestant Church of Belgium*
* These churches have no explicit churchwide policy permitting or prohibiting ordination of gays and lesbians. The decision is left to regional or local bodies, some of which are willing to ordain homosexual candidates. In some churches this amounts to a churchwide practice, since no ordaining bodies discriminate against homosexual candidates for ministry.
In Germany, a majority of Lutheran, United and Reformed Landeskirchen (regional churches) permit the ordination of homosexuals without requiring celibacy. In the United Protestant Church in Belgium, homosexuals generally can be ordained in Dutch, but not in French, congregations. The General Synod of the Church of Norway, voted in 1997 to oppose the ordination of homosexuals living with a partner, but four of the eleven Norwegian bishops have declared that this policy is not binding in their dioceses. The issue is still in dispute. There is no churchwide policy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, and at least one bishop has declared his willingness to ordain homosexuals. Other Finnish bishops have said they will do so only if the ordinand commits to lifelong celibacy.
June 25 is an historic date. So is June 27. On June 25, 1957, the United Church of Christ came into being, as a union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. On June 27, 1969, the "Stonewall Rebellion" took place, when, for the first time, gays and lesbians resisted a police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in New York City's Greenwich Village, rather than meekly submitting to arrest.
So in 1972, when Bill Johnson was about to make some history of his own as the first "openly avowed homosexual person" in modern times to be ordained to Christian ministry, he selected Sunday, June 25: the UCC's 15th anniversary and the weekend of the third anniversary of the event generally acknowledged as the beginning of the gay liberation movement.
Johnson did not set out to make church history and gay liberation history on the same occasion. He simply wanted to achieve a dream he had had since he was 17, and president of the youth fellowship at First Evangelical and Reformed Church in Houston. He wanted to be a minister.
A theological challenge
Although the Rev. William R. Johnson has never received a call to pastor a local church, today more than 100 openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clergy serve as pastors of UCC congregations in urban, suburban and rural settings. Another 100 serve in other ministries. Within the UCC, the push for recognition and affirmation of homosexual persons came from what is now known as the Coalition for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Concerns, which Johnson formed in 1972.
Looking back today, 30 years later, Johnson sees the Coalition as having been founded to make a theological challenge to the church.
"The Coalition challenged the United Church of Christ to honor our baptisms," he says, "to recognize that we all are called into the church by God and welcomed through baptism. Many people don't understand that the affirmation that the Coalition's Open and Affirming Church Program is asking them to give to gay and lesbian people is preceded by God's affirmation through baptism."
Advances since 1972
The Coalition made its first appearance at a General Synod in 1973 in St. Louis, when it made the point that matters of concern to gay and lesbian persons in the UCC should never be discussed without openly gay and lesbian persons in the conversation. By 1981 the Coalition held its first National Gathering (see story on preceding page), in 1983 it introduced the idea of an Open and Affirming Church Program to Synod and in 1985 Synod delegates adopted the program.
Today 410 UCC churches have voted to become Open and Affirming, that is, to welcome and affirm as members and leaders all persons without discrimination because of sexual orientation.
In the mid-'80s UCC Parents of Lesbians and Gays emerged. "This is an invaluable service to parents who are discovering for the first time that they have gay and lesbian children," says Johnson. "It's another extension of the church's ministry generated by the growing knowledge that people have about homosexuality and spirituality." He also is proud of the Coalition's youth and young adult outreach. "This is vitally important," he says, "not only for the saving of lives but for leadership development and for enabling young people to integrate their spirituality and their sexuality into a meaningful whole."
More to be done
Since 1988 Johnson has served on the UCC's national staff, most of that time dealing with issues of education and advocacy about human sexuality and AIDS. This year, he became Executive Associate in the Office of the Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries.
Despite the advances in understanding among UCC members since his historic ordination 30 years ago, Johnson still sees much work to be done. "We have to help people understand more about bisexuality and overcome the prejudices that we have about that," he says, "and about transgender persons, who bring significant gifts to the church."
"The future also has to involve the church's advocacy for and commitment to equal marital rights for same-gender couples," he says. "Surviving partners from legally married victims of 9/11 are getting at least $1.6 million. The surviving partners of gay and lesbian persons, no less grief stricken, will be lucky to get $10,000." He also points to the issue of protecting the rights of children of same-gender couples.
"The struggle in the church is not about opening minds but about opening hearts," he says. "The only way hearts really open is through personal interaction. And the only way personal interaction can happen is if people are willing to place themselves in relationship with someone who is different from themselves."
"What I ache for in the church," he says, "is for all people to be able to share the truth of their lives with some depth and some sense of safety. Because then we move into authentic Christian community, where everyone is valued and the love of God is expressed in and through our lives and mission together."
To some, they're the answer to a thirsty congregation's prayers. To others, they too often turn out to be self-serving opportunists who lead their flocks into a hostile wilderness. They are pastors, ordained in other denominations, who accept calls to lead local congregations of the United Church of Christ.
But some of them also might be key players in a seemingly never-ending drain of members out of the denomination, which, like all of the other mainline denominations, has suffered losses every year for nearly 30 years.
Theories stem from new UCC data on the 172 congregations (about 2.5 percent of the total) that have left the UCC since 1996. A surprising 79 percent of these churches were led by non-UCC pastors or reported no pastor at all. Only one in five (21 percent) had a UCC-ordained pastor at the time. More than one in three (35 percent) had a pastor ordained in another denomination. The rest (44 percent) had "no reported leadership," meaning they either had no pastor at the time or already had such loose ties to the UCC that they filed no information.
Go slow with data
Attempting to make sense of this "non-UCC pastor factor" can lead to some thorny terrain. For decades the UCC has championed ecumenical projects to share ordained ministries among various denominations. To suggest that non-UCC pastors have become a "foreigner-in-our-ranks" problem or an unwelcome group could cut against the church's long-term vision for ecumenism.
Wary of implications, researchers urge caution when interpreting the data.
"We can't say there's a causal relationship between calling a non-UCC pastor and church withdrawal" from the denomination, says Sheila Kelly, Minister for Research Information and Services in the UCC national office. "It could very well work the other way, with churches unhappy with the denomination intentionally calling non-UCC pastors as one step in distancing themselves from the UCC."
Two schools of thought
As data beg explanation, two schools of analytical thought emerge within the UCC.
The first says congregations must beware of a breed of charismatic pastors who have entrepreneurial designs to make local churches independent of the denomination. The second says non-UCC pastors have merely become fall guys for a denomination that makes life difficult for evangelical pastors and thereby alienates evangelically-minded congregations.
In 1999, First Congregational UCC of West Brookfield, Mass., called Assembly of God pastor the Rev. Harry Staiti to lead them. Staiti got the job, according to interim pastor the Rev. Patricia Glore, because "they were so anxious to get somebody in place." But although the church didn't end up leaving the denomination, she says Staiti seemed to have such a departure in mind.
"I think he thought he had an opportunity to lead them out [of the UCC] and they would follow anywhere he would lead them," says Glore. "They forgot who they were for a while, no doubt about it."
But Staiti tells a different story—one of being shunned by the local UCC.
"I accepted after nine months that we were on our own here," Staiti says. "I had seen the UCC as a place that celebrates diversity and everyone can be included. But I got the impression that evangelicals are not included." Nevertheless, he adds, "I had no intention of taking the congregation out of the UCC."
During his one year there, Staiti says, average worship attendance swelled from 30 to 175. Yet the old guard of the church bristled at his style, which, he says, included asking worshipers to open their Bibles during sermons and asserting that salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ.
In February 2000, he says, a disgruntled faction voted him out. He now pastors a storefront church, wedged between a deli and a Chinese restaurant in an East Brookfield strip mall.
Feeling unwelcome is sadly common for non-UCC evangelical pastors serving UCC churches, according to the Rev. David Runnion-Bareford, Executive Director of the Biblical Witness Fellowship. His organization has requests from 40 to 60 UCC congregations seeking evangelical pastors at any given time, he says, and must often look beyond what he sees as a liberal-heavy pool of UCC candidates to satisfy demand.
"Once they become more accepted, they'll become more loyal," Runnion-Bareford says, referring to non-UCC, evangelical pastors. Meanwhile, he says, "we need to re-examine our denomination's commitment to diversity and whether it would be willing to embrace more evangelical viewpoints."
Already on slippery slope
One such church seeking an evangelical pastor was First Congregational UCC in Clinton, Mass.The church already had stopped sending delegates to denominational meetings when the Rev. Grif Vautier, a Presbyterian, became pastor more than eight years ago.
When the congregation voted this fall to withdraw, it cited as final straws the denomination's liberal interpretations of scripture and its scholarship fund for gay and lesbian persons to attend seminary.
"We didn't feel we could stand behind the [UCC] organization," said Jill Wong, co-chair of the search committee to replace Vautier. "The decision to leave the UCC was a membership decision and was not influenced by the ministers at all."
Others suspect pastors might sometimes have a lot of influence and must be aware of it—especially in an age when shared leadership across denominations is coupled with diminishing denominational identity.
"We in the UCC say we pastors have only one vote," says the Rev. Patricia Smith, moderator of the Massachusetts Central Association that saw two of its congregations leave the UCC in autumn 2001. "That's silly. We have a lot of influence. My congregation is coming along now to embrace the UCC, and I know it's because of my influence."
Clear pattern confirmed
Ron Buford, UCC Public Relations and Marketing Manager, agrees with Smith. Buford often handles calls from members whose congregations are in the process of leaving the UCC.
"This new data confirms a clear pattern I see among those callers," says Buford. "Here's the typical profile: The church calls a pastor who has never embraced UCC values; long-standing UCC members get alienated—they stop coming and some leave; a new congregation emerges as new people come and the balance shifts; people call me, desperately trying to hold on to their congregation, but it's too late."
Buford continues, "We have many great non-UCC pastors. However, church and ministry committees must identify those who do not come in good faith. These entrepreneurial types, less common among mainline clergy, come instead with an eye toward doing something they never could have done in the denomination they left—take a church out of the denomination, building, endowment and all."
Denominational ties crucial
Lack of commitment to one another ensures some pastors and congregations remain on the denomination's fringe, according to Ohio Conference Minister the Rev. Ralph Quellhorst. He says 40 Ohio congregations have left the UCC in the last 10 years. In his estimation, 90 percent of the congregations that fled the UCC had non-UCC pastors at the time.
"The pastor says, 'You don't have to stay in the UCC,'" Quellhorst says. "The pastor doesn't work to help them learn more about the UCC." Meanwhile, he says, UCC pastors too often regard their evangelical, non-UCC pastors as "second-class citizens" who "don't feel they're allowed very far into the fellowship."
"When you had a strong denominational loyalty, you could work it out," Quellhorst says, adding that those days are gone.
One facet of that UCC identity and loyalty is a prophetic vision, according to Buford, which comes, he says,when God reveals a new way to see an old situation.
"The new growth data suggests that the people will embrace a prophetic vision when strong and committed pastors boldly proclaim it," he says. "Prophetic vision is often unpopular. If the pastor does not believe it, the people will be cast adrift."
In the end, the correlation between non-UCC pastors and congregational departures might point to two or more solutions.
The BWF's Runnion-Bareford says the onus is on the denomination as a whole to "examine whether it values diversity or conformity" in a time when clergy shortages require creative solutions.
The Rev. Richard Sparrow, Search and Call Coordinator in the UCC's Parish Life and Leadership Ministry, disagrees. "The onus is on churches," he says, to know their history of commitment to "outreach, ecumenism and justice" through the United Church of Christ and therefore retain close covenantal ties.
"The issue is not just non-UCC pastors," he says. "Too often churches' ties are already loosening and they're on a slippery slope. Then they are vulnerable to a charismatic type pastor, who might already be in trouble with his or her own denomination."
One thing seems clear: if the pastor strongly identifies with the denomination, then the congregation probably will, too. What's not so clear is which comes first.
The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald is pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass., and a free-lance journalist, regularly contributing to Religion News Service.
Four students were wounded and another killed during a shooting on the campus of UCC-related Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. Darris Morris, a senior from Batesburg, S.C., was killed following an altercation with students from nearby Livingstone College. Six Livingstone students have been charged in connection with the shooting.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the Rev. Ken Clapp, chaplain and senior vice president of Catawba College, has been working nonstop offering pastoral guidance.
"I have been caught in the blur of counseling and helping our grieving students," says Clapp, "so much so that I haven't had the time to grieve and process the shooting for myself. As with anyone, it's just so hurtful and so disappointing."
An altercation at a party on the Catawba College campus escalated as it moved outside near the gymnasium. Livingstone students were seen going to a vehicle on the street nearby. Reportedly, at least one of the students pulled out a handgun and began firing. Catawba College security exchanged gunfire with the students, with one of the assailants sustaining a superficial wound to the head.
"Students from rival schools routinely rile each other," says Clapp. "I just never expected something like this. I think kids see so much violence, and the people that get shot on TV [shows] get back up. I think this will make them realize that there are consequences. This young man didn't get back up
In 1975, South Congregational UCC in Grand Rapids, Mich., had 1,000 members, 300 in church school, and about 400 people in two services every Sunday in a beautiful, well-maintained building.
Today, we have the same building but in very shabby shape; 180 members, more than half over age 75; 12 kids in our church school, and debts in excess of $150,000. We will be closing this summer.
Three core problems
How did we get to this place? There were three core problems: an unwillingness to engage with our neighborhood; an inability to disagree without fighting; unrealistic long-term financial planning.
*We probably took the first step to being in this place more than 25-30 years ago, when we ignored the cultural and demographic changes going on in our neighborhood. Then it was changing from being 100 percent white and middle-class to what is now a diverse middle-class mix of whites, blacks and Hispanics in a neighborhood that borders some of the poorest parts of Grand Rapids.
*We fought, between ourselves and with our pastors. With every fight, good people left our church and our will to serve diminished.
*Our financial planning was short-sighted. We never built an adequate endowment. We used scarce capital campaign funds to hire a full-time Christian education person. Disastrous problems with heating and roofing left us with a mortgage and, while the capital campaign paid the monthly payments, we faced a $125,000 balloon payment and could see no way to raise the funds.
The emergency problems and the associate's salary used up the funds that should have been spent on renovating the building, launching local hands-on mission, and paying for advertising in the neighborhood.
Doing everything right
When I was caled here 19 months ago, the church appeared full of energy and ready to re-establish itself in its present location. The search committee believed it; the Area Minister believed it; I saw no reason to doubt it. Looking back now, we didn't know how many people were planning to leave. We couldn't admit the effects of our problems with fighting, with money, or with mission.
As I examined our life, I realized that we were doing everything church consultant Lyle Schaller ever suggested to welcome people on Sunday morning. We had good worship, excellent music, well-presented bulletins, friendly people at the door.
But our mission commitment was abysmal. We gave money, generously, but very few of our people were involved in hands-on outreach. We did not use our building as a mission resource for our neighborhood. I began to fear that there simply was no energy at South to build a future.
Once I understood our financial position, I supported the trustees in their decision to sell the building, probably to the independent, charismatic, conservative African-American congregation that has been renting from us for over a year. They will be doing something very different than we would have done, but their ministry is needed in our neighborhood.
This year, I tried out the idea of using the proceeds from the sale of our building to start a new church under the Association's sponsorship. People immediately got excited; they wanted us to continue, but they knew they could not do the work. We are still developing the details, but it looks quite positive right now.
What role did I play?
Fortunately, I had time to get to know folks before this blew up. So I offer comfort to the grieving. I help envision a future—by encouraging the formation of ties with their "next" church, by forming a vision of a new church start, and by helping them understand what healthy, faithful churches and church members do. As we prepare to close, we are co-sponsoring a Habitat house here in Grand Rapids.
Finally, I keep proclaiming the Gospel. There is a word of comfort for our situation and a word of challenge for our future. I keep trying to put everything in a Gospel context and our people have been pretty explicit in saying how helpful that is.
The Rev. Virginia Child, pastor at South Congregational UCC in Grand Rapids, Mich., is seeking a new call.