No congregations, no justice

UCCLogoOn Pentecost Sunday, my mother's youngest brother and his family joined a congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. This marked the last of my mother's siblings to leave the United Church of Christ. She also has a Roman Catholic brother, a brother who I believe is a New Age spiritualist, and a Lutheran sister. When my mother left the church, her parents were very upset. They were devoted members of their church in Denver and had been devoted members of their church in Missouri. Now it's hard to find more than a few distant family members who remained in the church. My mother was baptized and confirmed in UCC congregations and has spoken highly of the religious training she was given. She has followed the church's precipitous decline from mainline powerhouse to struggling social-justice outlier. When we would visit my grandparents' Denver congregation, my mother would lament the replacement of the Christian creeds with modern interfaith statements, or sermons that refrained from biblical messages in favor of readings from other religions or secular traditions. In addition to my aunts, uncles, cousins and other extended family, the church has lost over a million members since my mother left in the 1960s.

Reader Ben Dubow sent along a fantastic article from the Hartford Courant about the UCC. It's a wonderful example of how to localize a national story. Reporter Elizabeth Hamilton managed to be balanced, straightforward and informative about church politics and doctrine. It's not very often you see that. Note this lede:

When more than 10,000 clergy and parishioners from the United Church of Christ converge on Hartford this week for their General Synod, at least half of the dozen resolutions they'll consider will deal with issues of social justice -- a more humane immigration policy, a worldwide ban on depleted uranium weapons, support of physician-assisted suicide.

In other words, bread and butter issues for a mainline denomination, known by most as the Congregational Church, that has come to be associated with its progressive -- some would say liberal -- stance on controversial topics like gay marriage and abortion rights.

But sandwiched between those resolutions is an almost equal number of proposals that illustrate the cost the UCC has paid for its strong social justice component.

These resolutions, which come from conferences in the Midwest and South, range from calls to "vehemently affirm" that marriage is a God-ordained relationship between a man and a woman to more measured proposals suggesting ways to keep conservative congregations from leaving the UCC.

Since the last General Synod, in 2005, when more than 80 percent of delegates voted to endorse gay marriage, at least 220 churches have left the denomination, according to Faithful and Welcoming Churches of the United Church of Christ, an organization whose stated goal is keeping estranged churches from bailing out of the UCC.

The UCC disputes these numbers, and said only 160 churches have left the denomination since 2005, and only 90 of those specifically cited the marriage resolution as their reason for leaving.

Whatever the number, it doesn't change the underlying truth that the UCC, much like the Episcopal Church of America, is struggling to keep its family intact as it grapples with questions about its own identity.

The remainder of the story delves into concerns from a wide variety of viewpoints. One pastor notes the disconnect between the liberal leadership of the church and its less liberal laypeople. Church officials say the loss of congregations is sad but not as big of a deal as some think. One clergyman is upset that the media are even writing about the issue. Hamilton explains the history of the church -- how it formed from a merger of two bodies that also are the result of a merger (my own mother's church had been German Evangelical and Reformed before it became UCC). Hamilton quotes a church leader saying that Jesus would want Christians to be in communion even when they have doctrinal disagreements.

The reporter focuses on the issue of homosexuality but speaks with congregations that have left and finds that the areas of disagreement are much broader -- those who left said they felt the UCC had strayed from caring about biblical authority. Hamilton looks at how various congregations have decided whether to publicly align themselves as embracing homosexual pastors and civil unions and finds, among those congregations with no desire to leave the UCC, quite a bit of disagreement.

At its heart the article is about those who have remained UCC. And while Hamilton doesn't shy away from the hemorrhaging of members and congregations, to her credit she focuses on the struggles of those who remain. She ends with this analysis from the Rev. Matthew Braddock:

The social witness component is part of what drew Braddock, the pastor from Trumbull, to a UCC church after he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church.

"I love that they're willing to take stands on these issues," Braddock said. "But I think the church struggles with it. The UCC, for years, has been saying that the way to renewal is through justice. But there are a lot of churches who are very engaged in hands-on social justice issues that aren't growing.

"Social justice needs to be linked with contemplation," he added. "And when you do one without the other, we lack balance."

Nicely done. As more and more reporters prepare for summer convention season, they would do well to respectfully look into substantive conflicts and struggles in each.

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