It was a simple little headline, dashed off for one of our "Got news?" posts, which is the catchphrase that we use when we see religion-beat stories that intrigue us, but have yet to make an appearance in the mainstream press (or have been downplayed, for some strange reason). In the headline I asked, "Adios to God the Father?"
Please note that the headline does not say, "Adios to God?" It says, "Adios to God the Father?" So I was not asking a question about, well, chopping off one corner of the Christian Trinity. I was asking a question about a Christian denomination voting to edit language concerning the Trinity, voting to move away from ancient, apostolic, orthodox language which speaks of the Trinity as revealed in the form of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Obviously, anyone who has followed trends in the world of liberal Protestantism in the last quarter of a century knows that there is nothing new about these bodies experimenting with gender-neutral language for humanity and God. What fascinated me was the decision by the trailblazing United Church of Christ to formally vote to drop a reference to God the Father from its constitution. In such a free-church, non-creedal, congregational body, I thought the constitution was a pretty symbolic document.
The point of my short post was not to express shock that this would happen, since it wasn't shocking. I wrote this as a "God news?" piece to ask a real question: Would this action by the UCC really be "news" to anyone? Would it be interesting to the reading public? In my experience, readers are interested in this kind of symbolic event, especially about worship issues.
Apparently, this was not "news," as much as it was a matter of "opinion," since mainstream coverage of the topic was nil and the topic jumped straight to the new semi-opinion level of blogging. That answers my question, at the level of newsrooms. The whole topic did set off some sparks.
Thus, I brought this topic up for another round in the latest GetReligion podcast (click here to tune in), just to take another shot at saying clearly what I had briefly said in the original post. Besides, it's always interesting to be accused of saying one thing, when you actually said something else.
Those looking for a sort-of-news summary of this affair will want to check out the work of Peter Smith at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He notes, accurately, that a small circle of conservatives left in the UCC protested this action, while the vote undoubtedly expresses the beliefs of the liberal denomination's core leaders and churches. He added, however, another interesting note:
The United Church of Christ recorded 1.08 million members last year, down nearly 3 percent from the previous year and down by about half since its peak in the 1960s.
It was formed by a merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church -- itself formed by a merger of two historically German Protestant groups, with several congregations in the Louisville area -- and the Congregational Christian Churches, whose organizational ancestors included the Puritans.
In the podcast, I list three reasons why this unsurprising UCC action still struck me as newsworthy. Smith's comment raises another question: Is the editing of the Father God language a story inside this declining church body, a flock that -- outside the Northeast core -- still contains some rather conservative and independent thinking congregations? Even if this language remains somehow optional, how will the constitutional change play in the heartland?
Also, astute readers noted another interesting and newsworthy angle -- the formal approval of a "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism (.pdf)" between the UCC, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church.
However, that story gets complicated, too. UCC press materials noted:
The two primary roadblocks to the agreement centered on language used during the baptismal rite and the manner in which water is used. ... Research found that nearly 20 percent of UCC churches were using alternative language for "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" for baptismal formula. ...
Ancient churches, you see, do not recognize the validity of baptisms that do not use the orthodox language of "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."
Thus, the new agreement is supposed to guarantee that this doctrinal formula will be used in all baptisms, to assure validity among these churches. However, it seems that in some corners of the UCC the operative idea is that "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" language may often be mixed with other references to God as Mother and/or a Trinity of gender-neutral descriptors of divine function, not personhood, such as "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier."
So, is a combo-language rite of this kind OK with Rome and others? That's an interesting, and perhaps newsworthy, question.
Also, does this mean that highly independent UCC pastors and congregations are now required to use some gender-specific "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" Trinitarian language in their baptism rites in order to keep faith with Catholics and others in this agreement? That's another interesting, and newsworthy, question.
After all, read this interesting item from the Rev. Chuck Currie, a UCC pastor in Portland. After covering some of this baptism language territory he notes:
I do not use the traditional language of "Father, Son and the Holy Spirit" during baptism as I try to refrain from using gender specific language for God in most cases. ...
Actions taken by the General Synod of the United Church of Christ speak to but not for the local church. Therefore, as a minister in the UCC I am not bound by any agreement made regarding baptism and may (and will) continue to use the language that I currently do. Inclusive language is important in theology and a important trait of many UCC congregations and our denomination as a whole.
Now, that's real life in the UCC -- right there.
So what is the official UCC policy on this ancient, creedal issue in baptism? Is it up to the local pastor and her or his flock? That would seem to be the case. So do officials of the Church of Rome now need to deal with UCC baptisms on a case-by-case basis, to see if the terms of this important agreement were honored at the local level? It would appear so. So what did this breakthrough document accomplish?
Sounds like news to me. Enjoy the podcast.