The National Council of Churches found itself facing a major split during a showdown meeting in Pittsburgh this month. At issue was a proposal to relax the NCC’s twelve-year-old stand against abortion, outweighing in importance more vigorously debated matters of Jewish-Christian relations.
A policy statement under consideration by the NCC’s newly organized Governing Board elicited a warning from Orthodox spokesmen that their eight communions might withdraw from the ecumenical organization if the thirteen-page document were endorsed. So the statement was relabeled a paper and distributed “for study and serious consideration of its suggestions for action by churches.” Constituencies are asked to report back reactions within a year so that the board can have another go at the document as a policy statement. The action took place at a four-day Governing Board meeting in the Steel City, where the Orthodox community is considerable.
Although the document did not win board approval, it nonetheless represented a propaganda victory for proabortion forces, for anti-abortion arguments do not appear in the study paper.
The paper was drawn up by a twenty-two member task force headed by Ms. Claire Randall, an executive of Church Women United. It was intended to supplant a 1961 action in which the NCC official declared that “Protestant Christians are agreed in condemning abortion or any method which destroys human life except when the health or life of the mother is at stake. The destruction of life already begun cannot be condoned as a method of family limitation.”
The latest statement asserts that “where abortion is a possible decision, we believe a woman’s conscience must be given priority in the decision-making.” “There is true sanctity,” the statement asserts, “both in the unborn life of the womb and in the life of the living, breathing human being.… Each has a claim to value. We believe the claim of unborn life increases as it develops. When the claim to value of unborn life is seen to conflict with the claim of fully existent life, neither of these claims can be considered absolute. They must be weighed in the light of the total situation and of what would most conserve human and spiritual values.” The paper makes no attempt to determine when in the development process the fetus assumes full human rights. It says the Supreme Court’s abortion decision “increases the responsibility of the churches to understand the circumstances in which the need for abortions arises.”
A spokesman for the Orthodox, Robert Stephanopoulos, expressed disagreement with “the basic formulation of the paper.… Its presuppositions, assumptions, and conclusions are in some cases contrary to those of the Greek Orthodox Church. The theological formulation is weak and overgeneralized.”
Stephanopoulos was one of three members of the drafting task force who registered dissent. He said that “a policy statement of this sort … would seriously jeopardize our continued relationship with the NCC.”
Also outspoken was Peter Day, a noted Episcopal churchman. In an eleven-page critique of the NCC proposal distributed to board members, Day argued that the statement “would not only appear to give legal sanction to homicide on the vast scale now being practiced in New York—one abortion for every two live births—but also to excuse it morally.” He said it contained “many questionable points of which perhaps the most dangerous is the placing of ‘quality of life’ in the balance against life itself.”
The abortion task force was appointed a year ago. It held two two-day and two three-day meetings. Five members of the NCC staff, including a Roman Catholic nun, served as consultants.
Ms. Randall, an artist turned administrator, said she was not unhappy at the outcome because it became plain during discussion that “at this moment in history” a study paper was more appropriate. Ms. Randall, a Presbyterian, received her degree from Scarritt College. Her cool manner earned the respect of board members and went a long way toward keeping the debate from becoming overly emotional.
The abortion paper was the first major item handled under a new procedure brought about by the reorganization of the NCC in December. Before being considered in a plenary session, the proposal was aired separately in five sub-groups into which the board had been divided. Section One reviewed it in relation to “Renewal of the Church Evangelism and Mission,” Section Two in relation to “Amelioration of Human Need,” Section Three to “Systematic Changes in Society,” Section Four to “The Culture and Life Fulfillment,” and Section Five to “Christian Unity.” The study-paper disposition was urged by Sections One, Two, and Four. Section Five asked that the statement “be further developed as a study document” by an augmented task force. Only Section Three urged its adoption as a policy statement.
The NCC Governing Board replaces the old General Board, which met three times a year, and the General Assembly, which convened triennially. The Governing Board is authorized to have 347 members (compared to 250 on the old board), but only 140 were on hand in Pittsburgh. Of these, 121 voted on the question of “further development” of the task-force report, according to the NCC Office of Information (38 supported that alternative, but 83 were opposed). As the procedure worked out, no vote was taken that gave a true test of how many favored the study route as over against the policy statement.
The most intensive arguments at the board meeting took place not over abortion but on two aspects of Jewish-Christian relations. There were fairly hot discussions on whether to “condemn” Israel for the Libyan airliner incident and on evangelization of Jews. The proposal to use the word “condemn” was offered as an amendment to a resolution. The amendment was defeated and the resolution came out rather softly worded. A letter of regret was forwarded to Libya, and an NCC staff study was ordered.
An official report from Section Five urged the board to express “deep interest” in Key 73NCC general secretary R. H. Edwin Espy, who is serving his last year in office before retiring (a replacement committee meets May 30), said that no part of the council has joined Key 73, even though 60 percent of the delegates at it’s December assembly had indicated in a survey that they favored NCC involvement. and called attention to “the necessity it presents for a Christian dialogue with the Jewish community relative … to the relationship between our efforts to evangelize and their concern for religious liberty in a pluralistic society.” But after Section Five voted on that wording, several of its members reassembled in what others regarded as a rump session and drafted an amendment. The proposal said Christians have the responsibility of “rejecting any efforts to proselytize members of the Jewish community” and should instead be “encouraging the efforts of those who are developing on biblical grounds a Christian theology of Judaism which recognizes that the promises made by God to the Jewish people are irrevocable and which views Judaism as a valid, contributive, and eternal faith.”
Introduction of the amendment prompted several board members, to the utter disbelief of others, to cite recent incidents in which the rights of Jewish Americans were allegedly trampled upon in the name of Christianity. The amendment was defeated, however, to the apparent discouragement of two representatives of the American Jewish Committee who were present.
In a subsequent press conference, NCC president W. Sterling Cary referred to extreme methods to convert Jews as “demonic,” but before the board he said that such antics “should not be interpreted as a judgment on the integrity of the Key 73 executive committee.”
Cary, elected last December, waded through a wide assortment of issues without getting himself into any major parliamentary jams. Board actions included adoption of guidelines on U. S. domestic priorities, relief and reconstruction needs in Indochina, and capital fund investment practices. Further encouragement was given the United Farm Workers’ lettuce boycott. (The William Penn Hotel, site of the board meeting, agreed not to serve iceberg lettuce picked by non-UFW labor.)
Cary wound up the meeting with a touch of humor. Calling for a vote on the final action he said, “All in favor say Amen. All opposed say A-women!”
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