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1 History and Polity Paper Angela Wells April 2012 Through reading, studying and praying about the denomination of the United Church of Christ, I have found that our historical roots inform our theology, which, in turn, informs our polity and our ethos. This paper will seek to explore where our boundaries are, how our theology informs our ethos, and how history informs our polity. All four of these categories overlap, constantly influencing each other. A good place to start is with our history, because we cannot know where we are or where we are going without knowing where we came from and what the intentions of our predecessors were. The United Church of Christ has a history of unification. Its four original predecessors were the Congregational Church, the Christian Church, the Evangelical Church and the Reformed Church. But we cannot forget a fifth strand, the Afro- Christian tradition, which was its own group that evolved from the South, even before the Emancipation Proclamation. We also have roots in Lutheran, Scottish Presbyterian, English Puritan, Separatists and Radical Reformation traditions. We are truly a diverse church. I think one thing that most of these traditions have in common is that they wanted independence, separation from a ruling top- down authority. These five founding groups wanted their autonomy from the regions in which they came. Even if they envisioned freedom and liberty differently, they all wanted it in some way or another, which is why this is foundational to the ethos of the United Church of Christ. The UCC came into being on June 25, The General Council for Congregational Christian Churches of America (formed in 1931) and the Evangelical and Reformed church (1934) evolved together to become the UCC. They both had mature and very different theological traditions. Their goal was to bring together churches with different polities, 1

2 ecclesiologies and cultures: English- speaking Congregationalists with the Evangelical and Reformed church, made up mostly of German Americans. There was also an urban/rural division and class/privilege division, because the Congregationalists were more rural and middle to upper class while the E&R church was more urban and working class and had less social power (Gunnemann, 23). The realization of the union was very remarkable because it was a bridging of such big differences. This depended upon good will, faith in Christ regarding a future unknown, and doctrinal ambiguity. The prevailing view was that this was a step along the way to further unity of other denominations, so that one day we would all be one. My grandfather was a UCC pastor, and he used to tell me about the heyday of the 1950 s and early 1960 s that existed right around the formation of the UCC. The church was growing, Protestantism was growing. People were optimistic about the future of the UCC, and Sunday morning worship was a mainstay in most Americans lives. As Randi Walker said, Sometime during the decade of , we became aware that our ecumenical worldview did not adequately account for the times that we lived in. This is when we had a wakeup call that our ethos needed to change. It was during this decade that MLK was assassinated and awareness about feminism, pacifism, the green movement, gay rights and immigration issues came to the forefront of people s consciousness. The war on poverty was spurred with the double- digit inflation/wage- price freeze in the mid 1970 s. It is almost as if within 10 short years, our utopian bubble burst. Suddenly we realized that everything was not right with the world, and potluck dinners and charitable giving were not going to change it. We needed collective salvation. The systemic evils such as violence, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia and general fear 2

3 of the other had to be addressed collectively. It was during this era that the church had to, if it wanted to attempt to address any of these huge issues, admit white, middle class, Protestant privilege and power. To realize this meant not only to own it, but to also relinquish much of this power as well. They had to give it up. We cannot have room for all the voices in the conversation unless some people talk less. In our ethos, we claim that we are multi- racial and multi- cultural; we have to make sure that this is so. Being diverse is not an option; it is something that God commands us to do. Using inclusive or expansive language is so important because we have to be radically inclusive in word and deed. In this way, we are able to bring the voices of different people to the table even if they cannot be there. We carry them with us. The congregation needs to be reminded that there are others in our denomination, let alone in other traditions, that do not look like, think like, act like or have the same history as us. Additionally, we have to have space to hear the wounded voices so that the church can faithfully address those needs. We do not hear others because we feel badly for them or because we want to be charitable. We hear others because their pains are our pains, we are God s interconnected human family, and our survival is bound up together. Frederick Buechner is credited with saying that, ministry is where the world s greatest hurt and your greatest gift collide. You won t know the world s greatest hurts if you are only sitting at the table with people with privilege. It is after we realize this that we are able to enter into beloved community. This is the whole idea of the God is Still Speaking movement. God is still revealing God s self to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. We cannot say that God is still speaking and yet only follow what we have heard God say in the past. We have to be willing to make room for voices and cultures that have not traditionally 3

4 been represented in our churches. Our ethos really speaks to the need, not the desire, to have people of all backgrounds, races, sexual orientations and genders as active voices and leaders within the church. At our core, I think what truly distinguishes the UCC from other denominations is stated in our tagline, that they may all be one, and this sums up our ethos. Other denominations may wish that the whole Christian church were one, one like them. But the UCC, at least in words, realizes that we are all one in the body of Christ and we are willing to adapt in order to merge with others. We all worship the same God. The unification of differing denominations to form the UCC is beautiful and is a great example of cooperation, respect and compromise, instead of competition. I do wonder what denominational mergers we can expect to see in the future. In our Statement of Faith, we say that we accept, the cost and joy of discipleship. Being one part of the wider Church, we realize that we have to make compromises, sometimes even merging our denominations in order for the future of the church to flourish. There was much turmoil when our denominations joined because they were coming from very different backgrounds with different populations, different histories, different roles for the pastor and different polities. But the fact that we were able to do this is a true testament to our theology. We are rooted in the Gospel and our ability to merge evidenced that we put the holy Bible as our authority above all those other principles that guide our actions. The ethos of the UCC is that we are so committed to welcoming everyone that we are willing to bend and flex according to people are what hungry for, just as our predecessors were willing to be flexible in order to make the merger possible. So many churches pride themselves on tradition that they are reluctant to change for fear of losing where they came 4

5 from, for fear of losing their apostolic tradition. However, if we put things in perspective, we realize that things are not always as they have been, and things will not always be as they are. We cannot predict the future. We have no sure way of knowing what kind of consequences our decisions will have, but we have to step out on faith and bear witness to the Gospel through our good intentions. Since we are so flexible, hopefully we will never break. We try to recognize that we all sit at Christ s table, where everyone is welcome. It is not our place to determine who has a seat and who doesn t. Because of this, there are many differing theologies represented within our denomination. I celebrate the fact that the United Church of Christ has conservative churches, and I mourn the loss of our Puerto Rico Conference when we decided to endorse marriage equality. I believe that we were able to merge, in part, because we could agree that Jesus is the sole head of the church. If we can t agree on any other theology, at least we find common ground here. As different as the different denominations were, they did realize that this is Jesus church and we are merely servants in it. Our ethos comes from our theology of Jesus, as stated in our Statement of Faith, God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races. Just as Jesus discriminated against nobody and served everybody, so do we try to do the same. The UCC is so theologically inclusive, that at times we have trouble really claiming what we believe. This is why the Statement of Faith is helpful. It is not a creed or dogma that anyone has to swear by, but it is a generalized statement that is an attempt to form a theology that we can all hopefully agree to. It is also something tangible that we can present to the wider world as a foundation for beginning the conversation of who we are. Our 5

6 polity is that each church can form its own covenants and confessions of faith and has no obligation to subscribe to anything produced by the General Synod, or its local Conference or Association. However, decisions that come out of the General Synod should be held in the highest regard by every church, because of our agreement to be in covenant with one another. We are not bound together by a human- made contract, but instead by a collective promise and our communal commitment to Christ. We stay unified because of our Basis of Union, which says, We are members of the holy catholic church before any mention of denominations. Our one church is greater than any single church and is greater than all of the churches combined. Even if we disagree, we are stronger together. But at the same time we are different and distinguished because we give local churches and members the freedom to discern what that relationship with Jesus means to them in their lives and what the meaning of God and the Trinity are. The UCC believes in giving local churches, pastors and congregants the freedom to interpret the scriptures for themselves in their own lives, in the way that they need to hear it, not in the way that the national church tells them to hear it. With that being said, we still believe in responsible Biblical interpretation so that it does not conflict with our ethos. Because of this, we do have a relatively unified system for the ordination of clergy within the UCC. This does not mean that the local church has to adhere to these guidelines when calling a pastor, but it does mean that in order for someone to be in good standing as clergy within the UCC, there is a certain set of criteria that they have to meet. This process is centralized so that the UCC can try to ensure that local church pastors are embodying our denominational ethos. I think the United Church of Christ is doing an incredible job of embodying Jesus 6

7 message in the modern era. One of my favorite song lyrics says, You gotta stand for something or you will fall for anything. We should be in dialogue, constantly trying to gain a deeper understanding of people of all faiths, but that doesn t mean that we don t stand for anything. We have a very clear ethos that we should live by. At the end of the day, I just hope and pray that the pillars of greed, imperialism, self- entitlement and apathy will fall to the forces of love, mutuality, humility and the acknowledgement of the divine in the eyes of every living being. We aren t the best that is yet to come, but everyday we work towards realizing the kin- dom of God right here on earth, and everyday we get that much closer. Thanks be to God. Works Cited Gunnemann, Louis H. The Shaping of the United Church of Christ. New York: United Church Press, Print. 7

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