Nearly 160 leaders of the United Church of Christ have approved a declaration meant to help end “the theological disarray and lackluster witness” of their denomination.

The unofficial meeting was led by local clergy and seminary teachers who said they are alarmed about what they described as the “theological vacuum” in the church. Avery Post, president of the United Church, and representatives from 10 of the church’s 39 state or regional conferences, attended the meeting. They urged “sound teaching in our church” in a letter addressed to members of the denomination.

In a “testimony of faith for today,” they affirmed the traditional Christian doctrines of the Trinitarian nature of God, the covenant with the people of Israel, the “incarnation of the Word in Jesus,” and salvation by “his life, death and resurrection.”

They declared their belief in Jesus Christ as Savior, as the “one word of God we have to hear, trust and obey.” They proclaimed the Bible as the trustworthy rule of faith and practice” and said the creeds, confessions, and covenants made in the past by their member churches “aid us in understanding the word addressed to us.”

However, participants took pains to link that statement of traditional Christian beliefs to efforts for social justice, which have been the principal goal of United Church programming for its 27-year history. “The divine deeds cannot be separated from God’s call [for us] to perform liberating and reconciling deeds in this world,” they said.

“I thank God for such a work,” Post said of the “Craigville declaration,” which has no official status in the church. The meeting was held in Craigville, Massachusetts, at a historic conference center connected to what has now become the 1.7-million-member denomination.

Earlier, he had told the Craigville group he decided to attend the colloquy because it was planned to discuss some of the most important issues he is facing as leader of the denomination, including a proposal for a new statement of faith for the United Church and the enomination’s need to reply to major ecumenical agreements that require the church to reach consensus on key issues of belief and organization.

Alfred Williams, minister and president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church, said the Craigville declaration should have importance, even outside his denomination.

“We are not the only denomination where these issues are powerfully present. There are others in search of a theological plumbline for their faith,” he said, citing the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches.

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One of the organizers of the colloquy, the Rev. Gabriel Fackre, said he was most pleased that participants, who included members of several factions in the United Church, were able to find “agreement on fundamental truths,” while accepting “the value of our diversity.”

In January, Fackre, of Andover Newton Theological School, was one of 39 theologians from seven seminaries connected with the denomination who issued “an urgent appeal” for “sustained rethinking of our theological tradition.” The theologians said the United Church is working in a theological vacuum.

“Much of our thinking … is pragmatic and ideological,” the theologians said. They urged development of a “teaching consensus” on “the central faith affirmations of our church,” because “the unity … (and) faithfulness of the church is endangered.”

One example of the ferment in the church is the United Church Biblical Witness Fellowship, which protested the decision by some denominational leaders to avoid using the New Testament phrase “Jesus is Lord” so as not to offend feminists and other opinion groups in the church.

Several members of the Biblical Witness Fellowship attended the Craigville colloquy. A director of that group, the Rev. Frederick E. Poorbaugh of South Westerlo, N.Y., called the Craigville declaration “a positive contribution,” because “in a number of places it affirms orthodox Christian faith” and because “it brought United Church leaders together across many lines of disagreement.”

In issuing the letter, participants disregarded arguments that congregational-style churches like theirs should not have any creeds. The “open forum of United Church believers” offered the letter “as a testimony of faith, not a test” of membership, in the words of Fackre.

The United Church of Christ is the successor to the Congregational Christian Churches, still the predominant Protestant denomination in New England. Since 1957, it has been united with the former Evangelical and Reformed Church, a church of predominantly German origin that combined a congregational organization with more liturgy.


A Volunteer Agency Fights To Control Its Publication

A group described by the FBI as a “political cult” has filed a $20 million lawsuit against 12 current and former board members of the Commission on Voluntary Service and Action (CVSA). The CVSA is an ecumenical volunteer agency based in the Interchurch Center in New York City. Its primary activity in recent years has been to publish Invest Yourself, an annual directory of opportunities for volunteer service. The directory’s reputation has suffered from a controversy over who has the right to publish it.

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The defendants say their organization was infiltrated in the late ’70s and early ’80s by political extremists identifying with the Communist Party (CT, April 22, 1983, p. 38). They allege that a woman named Diane Ramirez, elected CVSA’S chairperson in 1981, and a few associates elected to the board were actually working for a clandestine network of organizations referred to variously as the “National Labor Federation” (Natlfed) and the “Communist Party U.S.A./Provisional.”

Evidence suggests that Ramirez and her cohorts were using Invest Yourself to recruit members. Former volunteers have connected 41 listings in the 1982 edition of Invest Yourself to Natlfed.

Ramirez left in a controversy over operations and finances, and took her rival faction with her. Last year they published their own version of the directory. The Ramirez group claims it is the authentic CVSA, and their suit is aimed at establishing that contention. CVSA secretary Wilbur Patterson, one of the defendants, has labeled the Natlfed operation “a clear case of organizational piracy.”

FBI spokesmen say Ramirez is part of a network of extremists led by a shadowy figure who has assumed the name Eugenio Perente-Ramos. Former volunteers say Natlfed attracts idealistic youth by claiming to organize and benefit poor people.

The Boston Globe reported that members “live communally, spend long hours soliciting contributions or recruiting members” and “are expected to donate all savings and possessions to the cause.” FBI special agent Mike Falcone described the group as a “political cult” with military and legal units.

In February, the Joint Terrorist Task Force of the FBI and the New York Police Department searched the group’s headquarters in Brooklyn and its legal offices in Manhattan. Authorities acted after getting word that the group had planned a series of violent acts.

Believing there has been enough confusion generated from last year’s unauthorized version of Invest Yourself, the CVSA has given up the use of that title for now. It is working with the Council on International Educational Exchange to produce a new biennial directory. The new guide, called Volunteer! A Comprehensive Guide to Voluntary Service Opportunities in the U.S. and Abroad, will be issued in August. It carries 162 listings of volunteer opportunities, plus tips on checking out organizations to ensure they are reputable.

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