“But no one was harmed at Three Mile Island,” argued one delegate. “Yet …” a voice finished from across the room.

So went the debate, for and against nuclear energy, at the National Council of Churches Governing Board meeting last month in San Antonio, Texas. In the end, however, the “anti-nuke” faction won. The NCC’s policy-making body adopted an eleven-page statement, “The Ethical Implications of Energy Production and Use,” which had as its most controversial recommendation a U.S. national energy policy “which will not need to utilize nuclear fission.”

The board’s antinuclear stand was only a small segment of a comprehensive policy that was designed according to “an ethic of ecological justice.” The NCC Committee on Energy Policy, which drafted the policy statement over a three-year period, also called for energy conservation projects, development of new energy technologies that use renewable resources, and international sharing of resources and energy technologies. But the nuclear issue attracted the greatest attention, especially in the wake of the recent nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

The day before the three-day meeting began the NCC executive committee had voted to waive a first reading of the statement—meaning that board approval of the statement at the spring meeting would establish it as NCC policy. (Ordinarily, policy statements are presented for first and second readings at successive board meetings.) And, in anticipation of the nuclear debate, the board twice changed its agenda to allow more time for the energy policy debate.

The protracted energy debate left many of the 173 registered delegates—nearly half of them newly elected and attending their first biennial Governing Board meeting—either burned out or warm around the clerical collar. But they finally adopted the policy statement by an overwhelming vote—120–26—as if glad to close the issue.

Prior to the final vote, George McGonigle, an Episcopalian from Houston, cautioned the board members against adopting the policy just for the sake of adopting a policy: “Uncertainty is no sin if it has its foundation in faith.” But a subsequent argument by United Methodist official George Outen may have swayed the board members. Outen, a member of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, wanted an energy policy that took a hard antinuclear stand, one like earlier NCC policy statements “that have caused us to sweat blood and shed tears.” Outen then quoted the late Martin Luther King, Jr., who had once said, “Too often the church has been a taillight, rather than a headlamp.”

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Despite passage of the policy statement not everyone was sure that it meant to support a policy “which will not need to utilize nuclear fission.” Energy committee chairman Joel Thompson, Church of the Brethren associate general secretary, who with NCC staff members Chris Cowap and Katherine Seelman, was the primary author of the statement, denied calling for an immediate shutdown of nuclear plants. Thompson, who said he was selected by the NCC Division of Church and Society to become committee chairman because of his ability “to keep dialogue going,” instead advocated a gradual decrease in nuclear dependence. (A Connecticut board member had expressed concern since nuclear reactors provide 50 percent of that state’s electricity.)

NCC president M. William Howard said at a press conference that the policy was a signal “to immediately move to take significant steps toward elimination of dependence on nuclear energy.” (Seventy-two nuclear reactors produce an estimated 12 percent of all electricity in the United States.) Howard noted that starting a new nuclear plant at this time would violate the policy statement.

Claire Randall, NCC general secretary, said that industry officials had lobbied board members prior to the meeting in efforts to dilute the antinuclear position. Most vocal supporters of the continued use of nuclear power were John W. Simpson, a United Presbyterian from Pittsburgh, and Olaf H. Scott, an Antiochian Orthodox clergyman from Charleston, West Virginia. Simpson began the first of his many from-the-floor arguments for nuclear energy by listing his professional credits, including past president of the American Nuclear Society and designer of nuclear powered rockets and submarines.

Scott, a nuclear engineer before his clergy role, had presented to the board an alternative policy statement that likewise built a case for the ethical approach to energy policy. However, his guidelines allowed “using any current energy sources—such as coal and nuclear power—with the utmost sensitivity to the health and environmental requirements of the sustainability of man and nature.”

Unity Bid Grows from Grassroots Diversity

An NCC study panel has just presented its 1200-word report, “Foundations for Ecumenical Commitment,” and Governing Board members gathered in small groups to discuss it. In one such group the debate ranged from ecumenism to the purpose of the NCC itself. An outsider would have been impressed by the diversity of opinions in the group, and any visions of a single NCC stereotype might have been shattered.
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“Why are we spending so much time talking about ecumenism—this seems like the committed preaching to the committed,” questioned one delegate.
A board member from Texas speculated, “The average person in the pew could care less about the NCC.” Another Texas board member argued at least the nuclear energy industry notices the NCC. He said two company officials had approached him prior to the conference seeking a dilution of the antinuclear statement.
Dorothy Duke, an Episcopalian from nearby New Braunfels, said the NCC “had become a political group” that did not have Christ as its center. As a result, some members had become alienated, she said. In response, Ruth Prudente, a United Methodist from New York, argued that, “If we can’t speak to political matters, then what is the church?… Jesus Christ was a political figure.”
Real ecumenical movement is taking place in the small interdenominational groups on the local level, said Theodore C. Carlstrom, a Palo Alto, California, lawyer of the Lutheran Church in America. He said the charismatic movement and groups such as Bible Study Fellowship are bringing people together across denominational lines.
An NCC staff member described membership changes in the NCC Governing Board. He said there is a continuing trend toward more women, minorities, and youth. “Board members are more independent than they used to be,” he said.
The NCC also is interested in what nonmembers think. It sent out listening teams to thirteen regional cities during the past two years to find out the concerns of local church members and their awareness of the NCC. Claire Randall, NCC general secretary, found “an abysmal ignorance of the NCC.” She said that church members lack interest in any national program or ecumenical movement.
Group leader Dorothy Berry, who is active in ecumenical programs in Kansas, said many people are scared by the NCC as a kind of “super church.” Ecumenism to her does not imply a structural merger: “Merger implies that somebody’s got to win and somebody’s got to lose.”

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