A major group of American churches turns its most crucial corner this month. The move may eventually mean loss of nearly half the congregations previously associated with the once-prosperous International Convention of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ).
Forcing the issue is proposed restructure of the “brotherhood” begun by Thomas and Alexander Campbell in the early nineteenth century. Opposition to the plan has already prompted withdrawal of more than a thousand churches in ten months. A climactic vote on the “provisional design” for restructure is scheduled to take place in Kansas City during the Disciples’ annual assembly there September 27-October 2.
A few years ago the Disciples were one of America’s top ten Protestant denominations, boasting nearly two million members. They still list in their latest yearbook 7,965 congregations with a combined membership of 1,875,400. But 3,218 of these churches are described as “non-participating,” which means they turn over no offering to officially recognized causes. Only 1,061,844 members are counted as “participating.” and opponents of restructure claim the new denomination, to be known as the (singular) Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), will end up with no more than 700,000.
Restructure is feared by conservatives and cheered by ecumenists as a prelude to ultimate Disciple dissolution into the biggest of all American merger plans, the one now being written by the Consultation on Church Union.
Under the restructure plan, every church appearing in the present yearbook will be recognized as part of the new denomination. As a result, a drive is on among foes of restructure for a mass exodus of congregations. Disciples officials publicly admitted this month that 1,124 names of congregations had been dropped from the rolls in the past ten months. Of this number, 129 were reported to be financially involved in some phase of the brotherhood’s world operations, contributing about $40,000 in the past fiscal year.
Religious News Service reported that about 900 of the defecting congregations were found to be listed also by the North American Christian Convention, the yearly meeting around which theologically orthodox Disciples churches have rallied (see August 16 issue, page 48).
A restructure feature that is particularly distressing to conservative Disciples is that they will be obliged to compromise their traditional principle of complete local-church autonomy. The creedless brotherhood had its beginning in the Restoration movement, with spiritual revival driving churches back to New Testament principles. And the New Testament was interpreted as calling for the right of self-determination among congregations. There is historic evidence that this principle aided considerably the tremendous growth of the movement. But today’s liberal Disciples leaders demean congregational polity as “anarchy,” and vow to institute more connectional church government even if it means schism.
Most experienced churchmen, whatever their theology, agree that in today’s mass culture some measure of coordination among congregations benefits all. The desirability of cooperation for evangelistic effectiveness and economic efficiency is recognized even among the most extreme devotees of local autonomy. But modern ecumenists want cooperation for considerably broader purposes, often including political lobbying of a sort hardly representative of the constituency.
Disciples restructure has its roots in theological liberalism entrenched in the denominational leadership. Once Scripture is rejected as a firm source of church authority, the concept of the need for a return to New Testament principles collapses. The 10,000-word provisional design includes two references to the Bible. One says, “Within the universal church we receive the gift of ministry and the light of scripture.” The other refers to the expression of “the ministry of Christ made known through scripture.”
The provisional design does not do away with local autonomy, but it greatly facilitates the possibility of such a step in the future. It provides for a constitution that could be adopted by national convention without ratification by individual congregations. The constitution is expected to pave the way for Disciples to join COCU.
Opponents of restructure thus far have waged a free-swinging campaign featuring sweeping accusations with minimal documentation. Such tactics have to a degree played into the hands of the pro-restructure forces. Dr. Howard E. Dentler, yearbook editor, charges that the campaign against the plan has used a “deceptive, malicious, and false” argument.
The big question involving dissident congregations is: What happens to the church property if they pull out? The answer may be affected by litigation now before the U. S. Supreme Court. Disciples churches can remove themselves from the yearbook before the Kansas City assembly by submitting sworn statements that this is the desire of the congregation. How they might withdraw afterwards is not altogether clear, and lawyers have reportedly been devising ways in which the denomination can shake a legal stick at balking congregations.
If the provisional design is adopted, top legislative authority will be vested in a general assembly dominated by clergymen and professional churchmen, as is the case in most denominations. The assembly will meet every two years. Previously, the massive Disciples international convention has been a purely advisory body with minimal authority. Last year’s convention was the first to have elected delegates.
EXCERPTS FROM DISCIPLES DESIGN
“As members of the Christian Church, we confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and proclaim him Lord and savior of the world. In his name and by his grace we accept our mission of witness and service to mankind.…
“In order that the Christian Church through free and voluntary relationships may faithfully express the ministry of Christ made known through scripture, may provide comprehensiveness in witness, mission and service, may furnish means by which congregations may fulfill their ministries with faithfulness in Christian stewardship, may assure both unity and diversity, and may advance responsible ecumenical relationships, as a response to God’s covenant, we commit ourselves to one another in adopting this provisional design for the Christian Church.…
“The Christian Church manifests itself in congregations, both in the historic form of the local church and in new corporate structures for mission, worship and service which the Christian Church may establish or recognize.…”
“Among the rights recognized and safeguarded to congregations are the right: to manage their affairs under the Lordship of Jesus Christ; to adopt or retain their names and charters or constitutions and bylaws; to determine in faithfulness to the gospel their practice with respect to the basis of membership; to own, control and encumber their property; to organize for carrying out the mission and witness of the church; to establish their budgets and financial policies; to call their ministers; and to participate through voting representatives in forming the corporate judgment of the Christian Church.…
“While congregations are responsive to the needs of general and regional programs established with the participation of the congregations’ representatives in the general and regional assemblies, all financial support of the general and regional programs of the Christian Church by congregations and individuals is voluntary.”
FUTILE BOOST FOR HATFIELD
Mark O. Hatfield, 46, got the news from Billy Graham, the only non-politician at the wee-hours conference August 8 where preliminary decisions were made: Richard M. Nixon would not choose Hatfield as his running-mate.
After the meeting, at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, the evangelist phoned Hatfield, U. S. Senator from Oregon, who was staying with Mr. and Mrs. Robert Green. Mrs. Green—singer Anita Bryant—had performed for the Republicans and, like Hatfield, has also participated in Graham crusades.
Graham was invited to the caucus by longtime friend Nixon to make observations on the kind of man who should be nominated for vice-president. The evangelist made a strong pitch for Hatfield as a man who is not only “young and charismatic but a man of God.” He said Christians across the nation would rejoice if such a committed believer were on the ticket.
But politicians such as Barry Goldwater and Senator Strom Thurmond were opposed to Hatfield’s dovish view on the Viet Nam War, participants said. Thurmond would also have wanted Hatfield to lay off civil rights, according to one account. Later that morning Nixon decided on Governor Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland, an Episcopalian and the first Greek-American to run on a national ticket.
After the meeting, Graham, who is a registered Democrat, emphasized that he was not entering politics as such or endorsing any candidate. He noted that he would give a prayer at the Democratic Convention, as he had for the Republicans. Graham said, however, that he felt obliged to use his influence as much as possible with both major parties to assure consideration of moral and spiritual problems at this point in the nation’s history.
On the convention floor itself, little of religious impact turned up. The Republicans’ 1968 platform pledges support of Israel as a means of promoting peace in the Middle East.
Some controversy may stem from the platform’s church-state position. It proposes tax credits for expenses of higher education—whether at a religious or a public institution. More importantly, the party is pledged to “urge the states to present plans for federal assistance which would include state distribution of such aid to non-public school children and include non-public school representatives in the planning process.… Where state conditions prevent use of funds for non-public school children, a public agency should be designated to administer federal funds.”
Among ProtestantThe liberal Ripon Society studied half the convention delegates and found 82 per cent were Protestants. churchmen testifying before the Republican platform committee was President Arthur S. Flemming of the National Council of Churches. The former Eisenhower Cabinet member said the party should shun “glittering generalities” on Viet Nam, and endorse the Kerner Commission report on riots.
Czech Church Thaw
Hardline anti-church policies are melting in the heat of Czechoslovakia’s changing political climate, and it appears that churches in nearby Soviet satellites are getting warmer weather, too.
Since January, the Czechoslovak supreme court has overturned “espionage” convictions of scores of clerics and has “rehabilitated” several Roman Catholic bishops jailed in the fifties on political charges. Bishop Frantisek Tomasek, 69, of Prague, reports the best “climate for religious freedom” since the country went Communist in 1948.
“The Party is resolved to oppose attempts to make religious beliefs the subject of political demagoguery,” says a mimeoed handout of the regime of Alexander Dubcek, liberal Communist boss.
As a result, says Tomasek, Czechs are showing “new signs of religious fervor; we are no longer a silent church.”
One of the most piercing shatterings of silence came from the nation’s Lutheran leaders, who presented Dubcek with a list of grievances and desired changes. They lashed out at oppression under past regimes, then called for corrective measures. The Lutheran list included:
End of government interference in church affairs; cessation of legal harassment of the clergy and revision of unjust court decisions; removal of atheism from the Czechoslovak constitution as a state doctrine; constitutional room for freedom of conscience; punishment of those who discriminate against Christions; the right to provide religious instruction for children; lifting of censorship from pulpits and religious writings; freedom of assembly for worship; end of atheistic attacks against religion in the media.
The statement, delivered to Dubcek months ago and made public only this month, drew attacks by Blahoslav Hruby, an exiled Czech who edits Religion in Communist Dominated Areas for the National Council of Churches. The changes called for are mild, he said, in comparison to radical proposals by younger churchmen, who are challenging the older clergy for leadership in the freedom struggle. The statement’s signers, he charged, once declared that “everything was wonderful under the old regime.”
In another development, thirty pastors met in Prague with aides of evangelist Billy Graham to discuss possibilities of a future Graham crusade there.
Elsewhere, Rumanian Baptists are this month circulating 5,000 copies of their first new hymnal since 1941. For the first time in years the two top leaders of the 120,000-member Rumanian Baptist Union were permitted to attend Baptist World Alliance sessions, held recently in Liberia. Baptist exile Jeremie Hodoroaba, who beams gospel broadcasts to Rumania from Paris, is negotiating for a new printing of Bibles.
Unitarians were allowed this month to celebrate publicly the 400th anniversary of their faith in Rumania and Hungary. And it is likely that Hungary will grant requests by Lutheran and Reformed churches for continued government subsidies of about $2.5 million in the face of “urgent and inevitable economic needs.”
BOURBON STREET BEAT
Southern Baptist evangelist Bob Harrington, 41, former playboy businessman now billed as “The Chaplain of Bourbon Street,” took his “Wake Up America” crusade to the nation’s capital last month. But he failed to rouse his intended audience of “press, politicians, and preachers,” who declined engraved invitations to hear his sermons at a plush hotel ballroom. (Only a week earlier, 50,000 persons had turned out to hear him in Newport News, and hundreds had made decisions.)
Harrington, who feels as much at home preaching in a bar as at church, was also turned away by Washington go-go joints and nightclub operators.
He vows to return in October.
Harrington’s “chaplain” title was bestowed six years ago by New Orleans mayor Victor Shiro, who cited the city’s Bourbon Street nightclub evangelist for preaching the Gospel “with love and wit and good humor.”
He has been featured in secular magazines, on television shows, and even on stage with star Dean Martin at the Sands in Las Vegas. Doubleday will publish a book about him this year, and Warner Brothers is dickering for a motion picture on his life (he insists on playing the lead role himself).
A football star in high-school days, Harrington graduated from the University of Alabama. After his conversion in 1958 he left his successful insurance business to “learn how to preach” at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
He chose a street ministry “where the sinners are” rather than a church, and decided to set up “shop” in a former liquor store to beam his ministry at Bourbon Street’s show people and night-life patrons. Besides, he quips, “you never hear about a honky-tonky splitting; the devil’s crowd is very cooperative.”
His big break occurred in 1964, when he led reputed regional Cosa Nostra head Carlos Marcello to profess Christian commitment. Marcello, operator of the Sho Bar club on Bourbon Street, became Harrington’s key to nightclub doors across the nation.
Once inside and on the program (always by permission), he unleashes an old-time gospel message sparked with humor. Crowds roar with laughter (many claim he’s funnier than any comic they’ve heard), then lapse into a hush broken only by sobs as he presses a revivalistic invitation. No compromiser, Harrington asks inquirers to raise their hands, then prays for them on the spot. Over the years, hundreds have responded.
He often enlists showgirls and jazz musicians for his “good old-fashioned Baptist services.” Stripper Patti White, a former Presbyterian soloist, says she hasn’t returned to the Sho Bar since she read Scripture and sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” during one such service.
Harrington reassures club-owners wary about his effects on their trade that they will always have “a fresh batch of sinners” the next night. So popular is he that attendance at some of his nightclub appearances is by invitation only.
In hippie haunts he leads with, “If cleanliness is next to godliness, then this must be the most ungodly crowd this side of hell!” The hippies love it. His rapid-fire delivery, disarming humor, and genuine sincerity preclude heckling. And he gets the same kind of results as elsewhere.
Whenever Harrington lands in town for church or city-wide meetings, he visits the nightclubs with an eye for gospel prospects. Although he travels widely, he confesses partiality for his Bourbon Street beat.
Harrington hopes to begin similar works in New York’s Greenwich Village, Las Vegas, and Paris when he finds “the right kind of staffers.”
While surveying the Las Vegas scene, he told a club doorman he aimed to bring revival to town. “I’ll lay you ten to one you can’t do it,” said the doorman.
Harrington is tempted to take his bet.
EDWARD E. PLOWMAN
Though given to hospitality and free speech, Britain decided this month that Scientology was just too much. Home Secretary James Callaghan refused to allow the cult’s American leader, Lafayette Ron Hubbard, to enter Britain. There is already a ban that prevents the movement’s foreign adherents from entering or remaining in the country, either as staff or as students.
Said Health Minister Kenneth Robinson: “The Government are satisfied, having reviewed all the available evidence, that scientology is socially harmful. It alienates members of families from one another and attributes squalid and disgraceful motives to all who oppose it.” The National Council for Civil Liberties professed itself “gravely concerned” at Robinson’s statement and called for an official inquiry.
Meanwhile, from his yacht in Tunisian waters, Hubbard cabled the cult’s English headquarters at East Grinstead that though he was owed $13 million by the organization, this debt had been “forgiven.”
To obtain a definition of Scientology proved difficult. According to the movement’s Washington, D. C., office, it is “an applied religious philosophy … a way of life—entirely workable—to produce results for the betterment of each man, (and) has no restrictions on nationality, color, or economic status.”
The spokesman was more forthright when it came to refuting the Minister of Health’s statement. The case against Scientology, she asserted, had been manufactured by means of phone-tapping “and similar methods normally associated with a police state rather than a democracy.”
The Australian state of Victoria banned Scientology within its borders some three years ago. The decision was taken after a government board’s report had said: “The theories of Scientology are fantastic and impossible, the principles perverted and ill-founded, and the techniques debased and harmful.” The report further described it as “an evil … a form of psychology practiced in a perverted, dangerous way by people lacking qualifications,” and as “the world’s largest organization of unqualified persons practicing dangerous techniques under the masquerade of mental therapy.” The report found adherents “sadly deluded and often mentally ill,” and said that the movement posed a grave threat to family life, caused financial hardship, and sowed dissension and suspicion among members of the family.
A membership drive, however, is currently reported from the neighboring state of New South Wales. Propaganda literature has been distributed and invitations given to attend free introductory lectures.
Four years ago Britain’s previous administration refused to exclude “Big Jim” Taylor from Britain after his Exclusive Brethren movement had been described in the House of Lords as “the antithesis of Christianity.” Though compared unfavorably with Lenny Bruce, who had been refused entrance as an undesirable alien, Taylor was not excluded when the Home Secretary pointed out that he had broken no law.
J. D. DOUGLAS
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