NEWS: Church Assemblies

United Church Eyes Bishops

Predictions of objections in the Fifth General Synod of the United Church of Christ against the church’s acceptance of bishops proved unfounded. Reporting on the progress of the Consultation on Church Union, of which the UCC has been a member since its inception, the Rev. David G. Colwell of Washington, D. C., chairman of the UCC’s Commission on Christian Unity and Ecumenical Study and Service, told the synodical assembly:

“You are well aware that it is anticipated that there will be somebody called a bishop in the United Church [the anticipated merger of the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, and the Evangelical United Brethren]. I ask those of you whose hackles automatically rise at the word ‘bishop’ to deal with what the consultation has said and not to deal with some imagined office nor some frightful caricature which comes from out of the mist of the past.”

Colwell said the consultation is talking about an as yet undefined “but specific kind of bishop.” Without debate, the 738 delegates, meeting for their Fifth General Synod June 30-July 7 in Chicago’s Palmer House, then voted unanimously to “direct” their delegates to the COCU “to continue their efforts to set forward the union of the Church.”

The UCC was formed when the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches, both themselves results of earlier combinations, merged in 1957. The church is highly congregational in polity, with none of the synod’s decisions binding on the local congregations. The synod stipulated that “action to commit a congregation to become a part of the new denomination will be taken by the congregation itself.” This left open just what kind of a bishop could be accepted within the UCC’s deep commitment to the autonomy of the local congregation. In the UCC structure of government, delegates to its biennial synods need not even be office-holders in the church.

The synod of the “united and uniting church” also decided to appoint a committee to participate in formulating a plan of union with the Disciples of Christ. Since ecumenical efforts with the Disciples have bogged down, the synod stipulated that such efforts are to begin again only when it is mutually agreed that “the necessary theological and ecclesiological consensus has been developed to make the effort useful.” It was added that any effort toward merger with the Disciples must give proper consideration to the UCC’s “participation in and commitment to the Consultation on Church Union.”

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In other ecumenical actions, the synod resolved: to continue participation in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and in the International Congregational Council; to continue its authorization of “exploratory conversations with the National Baptist Convention, U. S. A., Incorporated”; and, “mindful of the attacks being made upon the National Council of Churches,” to “pledge the continuing support of the United Church of Christ to the National Council of Churches.” The synod also urged UCC publications, UCC-related colleges and seminaries, and UCC local churches and their instrumentalities (boards) to promote and interpret church union.

In contrast to the near vacuum of floor debate on ecumenical decisions, considerable discussion was devoted to the question of the location of UCC national headquarters. Attempts to reorganize conferences and services of the UCC and to achieve a more efficient location for its top offices necessitated by the merging of the two constitutive denominations in 1957, are complicated by the UCC’s hoped-for future mergers with other churches. As one delegate said, “the church’s headquarters ought to be a tent.” Final decision as to whether all the denomination’s offices should be located in New York, and if so, whether they should be in a single location, was postponed.

An attempt was made by Dr. Robert M. Bartlett of the church’s Ohio Conference, by way of a proposed amendment to the UCC’s endorsement of the National Council of Churches, to have the synod direct its Commission on Christian Unity to work toward the “re-establishment of Christian unity within the United Church of Christ by seeking out the cause of dissension.” It was roundly defeated. The “dissident groups within the Church” were informed that “every action taken in the struggle for civil rights is action on behalf of all minority groups.”

Whether or not this response was to the point, it indicated the UCC’s expansive concern over social matters. Indeed, the UCC’s concern for church union is equaled only by its concern for social action. The synod summoned its 6,957 churches with 2,067,244 members—who have fallen $717,676.81 short in their world ministries—to assist in “abolishing poverty throughout the world,” and to work for integrated schools, equal opportunity in securing jobs, equal access to public accommodations, equal voting rights, equal protection under law, open church membership, open housing, equal opportunity for leadership and service, and the repeal of such racially discriminatory laws as those “prohibiting marriage across racial lines” and “discriminatory immigration laws”; the churches were also urged to hire all ministers and staff personnel regardless of race, to refuse to do business with those who do not practice fair employment, and to invest monies only in corporations that do not practice racial discrimination. If the Chicago meeting was representative of the eight-year-old UCC, few churches, if any, have a greater social concern.

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The tendency of the UCC to place greater value on Christian action than on Christian proclamation was nowhere more explicitly spelled out than in the report, “Mission on Renewal and Evangelism,” briefly designated in the UCC as “MORE.” “MORE,” the delegates were told, “points not so much to words, but to two significant deeds.” These deeds, the delegates were told, are “the dialogic deed and the social action deed. MORE points to dialogue as the important base for evangelism.”

Although the proclamation of the evangel allows for dialogue after proclamation, none of the synod’s 738 delegates took exception to the reduction of gospel proclamation to dialogue, although the very concept assumes that each party has as much truth to speak as the other and therefore as much right to be heard. Only one dissenting voice was heard to this reduction of gospel preaching to the dialogic and the social action deed. The Rev. Paul R. Surbey of Granite City, Illinois, arose to remind the synod that the UCC is “one of the slowest growing denominations,” and that evangelism is still a matter of “winning members to Christ.”

Financially, it was revealed, the UCC has fallen far behind its set goals of contribution. In what was described as a realistic and less discouraging procedure, the delegates accepted a proposal to begin with the present level of giving and project a budget of giving for the next two years that would exceed actual giving by a million dollars.

The UCC’s biennial synod met at a time when the race movement in Chicago was astir. Newspapers were carrying accounts of school teacher Al Raby’s resignation over the reappointment of Ben Willis as superintendent of education. The UCC synod allowed Raby, with his demonstrators, to enter its meeting and occupy its platform for two minutes. In a direct repudiation of Mayor Richard Daley’s charge that the race movement in Chicago was infiltrated and directed by Communists, Dr. Robert W. Spike, member of the UCC and executive director of the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race, drew hearty applause when he described Daley’s charge as an outburst of intemperate attack and asked, “When are we going to stop blaming all difficulty and unpleasant situations on the ‘omnipotent’ Communists?”

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The delegates also put on record their opinions (a) that war is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” (b) that the United States government ought to take a positive position in consulting with other nations on how the People’s Republic of China may be brought into the United Nations, (c) that the United Nations “deserves the prayers, the careful attention and the support of our people,” and (d) that the United States government “should sell wheat, other foods, medical and other necessities of life” to the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Eastern European governments.”

Plymouth: Scrutiny Of Unity

In the early days of Methodist assemblies in Plymouth so many came that preachers had to sleep three in a bed, which fact evoked from a minister at the 1965 gathering the neat suggestion that “perhaps our fathers were more narrow than we are.” The question of bedfellows was in one sense still a live issue, for the chief business at the British Methodist Conference this month involved a decision whether or not to approve the next step toward union with the Church of England (see “British Ecumenism: Anglican-Methodist Merger?,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, News, March 15, 1963).

The first of the five resolutions on the agenda was plain sailing, and the conference by 601 votes to 14 reaffirmed “its resolve to seek closer relations” between the two denominations. Three other resolutions, passed without difficulty, were concerned with the appointment of a joint negotiating committee, its terms of reference, and the legislation procedure necessary before its proposals are finally confirmed by a future conference.

The remaining resolution (chronologically number two) went right to the heart of the matter and provoked the keenest opposition. This resolution asked the conference to give “general approval to the main proposals of the Report of the Conversations … on the understanding that before full communion … is established (i.e. Stage I) there will be opportunity for (a) the clarification of any points in the Report that the Conference may require in the light of the judgments of Quarterly Meetings and Synods, (b) the considerations of such amendments submitted by Quarterly Meetings and Synods as the Conference may determine.”

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When Professor C. Kingsley Barrett, leading New Testament scholar and one of the dissentient signatories of the report, mounted the tribune to propose an amendment, the microphones failed, and the session adjourned for lunch amid delighted cries of “Sabotage!” Good humor and charity were prominent features of this whole debate. Later, the microphone suitably chastened, Dr. Barrett suggested to his audience that their primary duty was to unite Methodism, which he described as a divided church. His amendment was aimed at preventing the conference from making a final judgment on the main proposals, and sought plain answers to those questions that have troubled many Methodists. He listed some of the problems: Is the Service of Reconciliation ordination for Methodist ministers, or what? What is meant when the report speaks of “priest”? Is continuing communion with the other free churches certain? Dr. Barrett said his amendment would leave the door open to the Church of England, to world Methodism, to ecumenical development, to the non-episcopal churches, and to the penitent sinner (“it runs no risk of saying to any man, you can’t come to Communion unless you have the right ecclesiastical qualifications”). The amendment was lost, 467–165.

Another amendment, proposed by the Rev. the Honourable Roland Lamb, chairman of the Methodist Revival Fellowship, sought from the conference an “unambiguous affirmation of three fundamental principles”: the supreme authority of Scripture, justification by faith alone, and the priesthood of all believers. The right kind of theological basis was required, urged Mr. Lamb; “we ought not to build a temple of unity on the ruins of sound doctrine.”

On the first of Mr. Lamb’s points, Dr. Ward Kay, a physician from Sheffield, drew an analogy between Scripture and obsolete medical textbooks, good enough in their day but now superseded. He was supported by a theological doctor, the Rev. Percy Scott, who said that their church’s Christian Citizenship Committee had “driven a coach and horses” through Paul’s views on sexual morality—and rightly so. Mr. Lamb’s amendment also was defeated by a substantial majority.

Finally, by 488 to 137, the conference accepted the resolution and gave the requested “general approval to the main proposals of the Report of the Conversations.…” It stipulated, however, that among the many subjects to be scrutinized further should be the form of the proposed Service of Reconciliation, including laying on of hands and the interpretation of “priesthood”; the question of open communion; the use of fermented wine and disposal of the elements; relations with world Methodism and the other free churches; the place of the laity in the church’s councils, and lay administration of Holy Communion; the appointment and functions of Methodist bishops; and marriage discipline. At the instigation of Mr. Lamb the assembly further called for reconsideration of the sacrificial aspects of Holy Communion, and of the theological implications of infant baptism, including baptismal regeneration; and clarification of the report’s view of Scripture and tradition.

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Statistics released beforehand showed a striking degree of dissention among what was described as “the inarticulate masses of Methodism,” as represented in the quarterly meetings. The crucial question put to the meetings was: “Do you consider that in broad outline the main proposals of the Report point the right way forward to full communion between the Church of England and the Methodist Church?” The voting: 26,440 laymen in favor, 22,236 against, while 1,835 expressed no firm opinion. There were 768 amendments or requests for clarification from quarterly meetings. Many of them raised major points of difficulty, though not all were expressed so uncompromisingly as one from north of the border that stated simply: “It is requested that no bishop be appointed to the Scotland District.”

The conference appointed fifteen members of a new joint negotiating committee. Four of these had signed the Majority Report. Four of the twelve Methodists reporting on the proposal had dissented, but none of these is on the new committee.


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