Herche and Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy
November 17, 2000
The troubled National Council of Churches (NCC) is trying to recover from financial turmoil and declining membership among its mostly mainline Protestant member communions. But its latest General Assembly meeting illustrated that sexual politics may prevent the kind of cooperation with Evangelicals and Roman Catholics for which the NCC leadership has been pressing.
Last year, amid steep deficits and open speculation about the NCC’s possible collapse, former congressman Robert Edgar became the NCC’s new general secretary. Famed as a successful fundraiser for a Methodist seminary of which he was president, Edgar was expected to repair the NCC’s tattered finances.
With the instincts of a politician, Edgar quickly recognized that the NCC, if it is to have any future, could not rely exclusively on its declining mainline Protestant constituency. He pledged cooperation with the National Association of Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists and others. He and other NCC leaders even suggested folding the NCC into a larger ecumenical umbrella that would include all these groups.
One year later, the NCC’s finances remain shaky. And Edgar’s promises of increased ecumenical cooperation have run up against his open support for same-sex “marriage,” which may hinder any serious work with more conservative churches.
The week of the November 14-17 NCC General Assembly coincided with a Washington, D.C., press conference announcing a new ecumenical initiative to promote the institution of marriage among America’s churches. The chief organizer was the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Kevin Mannoia. Top officials of the U.S. Catholic Conference and the Southern Baptist convention signed on. So too did Bob Edgar for the NCC.
The focus of the statement was finding practical ways for churches to help couples build and maintain stronger marriages. But a single phrase in the statement defined marriage as the “holy union of one man and one woman,” a matter of settled doctrine in every major branch of Christianity. There was some question as to whether Edgar would sign the statement, because he has been a public supporter of legal recognition for same-sex unions.
But having publicly touted the importance the NCC attaches to cooperation with Evangelicals and Catholics, Edgar perhaps felt obliged to sign. His name was included on the statement released at the press conference, in which Richard Keeler, the Roman Catholic Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Baltimore participated, along with Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.
But the statement quickly caused trouble at the NCC General Assembly, even though Edgar, at first, made no public announcement of his endorsement. Instead, the statement was first mentioned at a breakfast of the NCC’s “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Caucus.” Keynote speaker Welton Gaddy of the Washington based-Interfaith Alliance said he was troubled by the pro-marriage initiative. He noted that some of the signers “support the denial of rights to the gay and lesbian community.” But Gladdy said, “I trust Bob Edgar,” by which he probably meant, “I hope Edgar will retract his endorsement.”
Few at the breakfast seemed aware of the statement to which Gaddy referred. So Edgar, who was present, quickly stood to explain. Calling it a “controversial statement” developed by the NAE and Roman Catholics, Edgar claimed the NCC had worked to remove most of the “language that was extremely offensive.” But he lamented that one “offensive” statement still remained, presumably referring to the one sentence definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Edgar pledged that the ecumenical initiative was not meant to oppose “holy unions” for homosexual couples, which he supported. But Edgar’s explanation to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Caucus seems not to have satisfied the large segment of the NCC elite that supports homosexual “marriage.” Later in the day he wrote a letter to all delegates, warning that the letter must not be used “in inappropriate ways” to “attack gays and lesbians, their families and friends and all in our churches who love and care for them.”
That statement seemingly not sufficient to mollify the NCC’s pro-homosexuality crowd, Edgar offered an “apology” the next morning to the full General Assembly for signing the ecumenical statement supporting marriage. Calling his endorsement a “mistake,” Edgar stressed his support for homosexual causes. “I’m removing my name from that letter,” he promised.
Throughout the NCC General Assembly, Edgar sported a rainbow sticker on his nametag, indicating his support for the Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, Transgender Caucus. So too did many other NCC leaders, including NCC executive Eileen Lindner, who was a member of the ecumenical committee that developed the marriage statement that Edgar was disavowing.
Homosexuality surfaced in still another NCC discussion. During a roll-call on whether to accept the Alliance of Baptists, a former Southern Baptist dissident group, as a new NCC member church, two denominational representatives expressed regret that the homosexual Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC) could not also be accepted into membership. (Previous NCC General Assemblies have rejected the UFMCC’s membership application.)
One of the two was United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, who left his northern California jurisdiction in turmoil when he retired earlier this year. He had refused to discipline 68 of his clergy who participated in a lesbian “marriage” rite, while driving out of the denomination about a dozen evangelical pastors who objected to his policy. The United Methodist Church forbids clergy from performing same-sex unions.
As the ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, Talbert implied he was speaking for his denomination when he supported the UFMCC’s inclusion. But another United Methodist delegate corrected the record. Leland Collins, who heads the Georgia Christian Council, told the General Assembly that the United Methodist delegation had not authorized Talbert to speak for them on that issue. Talbert later angrily confronted Collins.
Talbert had earlier received an award from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender Caucus at its breakfast. The caucus saluted Talbert for defying his church’s stance against same-sex unions. In his acceptance speech, Talbert explained he was simply being “faithful as a follower of Jesus Christ.” He said he was an introvert by nature and wanted to avoid controversy. But when “people of conscience present an issue before me I never walk away.”
Mentioning the 68 clergy who performed the lesbian “marriage” rite in Sacramento last year, Talbert said his response was “not difficult for me at all.” He acclaimed the lesbian couple as leaders in his United Methodist region. “The least I could do was be supportive despite the policy of my church,” he said. He also said he “probably” would not conduct same-sex unions himself, but he believed clergy should be free to do so. Talbert is a former president of the NCC.
Following Talbert as a speaker was Welton Gaddy, who is a leader in both the Alliance of Baptists and the Interfaith Alliance, which tries to counteract the political influence of religious conservatives. Gaddy told of the Interfaith Alliance’s work in successfully defeating Republican Representative James Rogan in California by counteracting religious conservatives in that race. Gaddy also surmised that Al Gore has been hurt for his support for the “gay/lesbian community.”
Gaddy told the caucus, “You bring a more honest interpretation of the Scriptures” by pointing out that “culture affected the writers of the Bible.” He explained that “not every text in the bible represents the full scope of biblical truth.” Gaddy rejected the old maxim “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” claiming that it falsely attempts to separate the “action” from the “identity.”
“Faces are more important than theories and doctrines,” he told the caucus, urging them to show that they are “incarnational people.” Gaddy said his views on homosexuality had changed “a little” from reading the Bible, but mostly from recognizing that homosexuals he met were more like Christ than he ever could be. When he was a Southern Baptist Gaddy said he was into “certainty,” but now he has come to appreciate “ambiguity.”
All the controversy about homosexuality is unlikely to help the NCC during its continued financial difficulties. Edgar took the helm last year when the NCC was facing an accumulated debt of nearly $4 million. Years of deficit spending reduced the NCC’s reserves from $15 million down to a now untouchable $3 million in designated funds. The NCC’s financially more successful relief arm, Church World Service, was given autonomy earlier this year to protect it from periodic NCC raids on its surpluses.
Just prior to the General Assembly, the NCC’s Executive Board approved a balanced budget for the next six months that will require the reduction of 17 positions from the NCC’s current 64 employee slots. Some of the positions are empty, and other employees will probably transfer to Church World Service. Yet the reduction illustrates the hard times that the NCC still faces.
The balanced budget assumes that $800,000 will be given by member denominations, which an NCC financial officer admits has never happened before during that time span. The NCC is also assuming it will receive $250,000 in foundation grants, which would also be unusual. Only 18 of the NCC’s 35 member denominations are currently contributing anything toward the NCC’s budget. Most contribute only a nominal amount. United Methodists and Presbyterians pay a disproportionate share of the NCC’s budget. The United Methodists have recently resolved not to pay any more than 25 percent of the total denominational support for the NCC, a reduction from the typical 40 percent.
Even amidst its budgetary problems, the NCC is mounting a new “Mobilization Against Poverty” whose goal is to eliminate poverty in America by 2010. Arrayed on the stage surrounding the podium were various cardboard “stumbling blocks” representing reasons why poverty has not been overcome. Drawn from suggestions by NCC delegates, the reasons included: “Republicans,” “Libertarians,” “effective segregation,” “capitalism,” “ageism, racism, classism, sexism,” “Christian beliefs,” “biblical mythologies,” and “stereotypes.” But others listed the NCC’s own budget deficit, the NCC’s lack of priorities, and “ecumenical bureaucracy.”
Touting the anti-poverty effort was former congressman William Gray, who now heads the United Negro College Fund. He reminded the NCC of its mandate to make “public policy compassionate” by supporting government programs against poverty. Gray complained that recent political discussions about the federal government’s budgetary surplus had ignored the possibility of new programs for the poor. He said he was upset by politicians and pundits who think poverty is a matter of “values,” since that line of thinking implies that the poor are at fault.
“I get so mad at folks who talk about right values and the good ole days,” Gray said. “You go back by yourself to the good ole days. How many women would go back to the ole days when there were no women on the Supreme Court or the House or the Senate?” he asked. “You were supposed to cook and have babies. My wife is not going back.”
“Anytime somebody tells you money is not the problem, you should back up,” Gray warned. “I get tired of the rich telling the poor: ‘Money is not the problem.’” Gray encouraged the NCC to keep preaching the “whole Gospel.”
“We need you now more than ever before,” Gray told the NCC audience. “Let your light shine brightly, calling the nation to a new sense of commitment and responsibility.”
Also speaking to the issue of poverty was leftist evangelical activist Jim Wallis. He condemned “wet-finger politicians” and urged the NCC to “change the wind” that guides such politicians. “It’s important who wins elections,” Wallis said. “But more important is the vision that guides the country.”
Wallis said the U.S. has more child poverty than Belgium or Germany. “This country has contradictions that are pricking the moral conscience of the nation.” He commended the “Living Wage Campaign” of James Lawson in Los Angeles, the Jubilee campaign’s effort to cancel all Third World debt, and the anti-sweat shop campaigns.
“Look at the power of the multi-nationals,” Wallis said. “Look at the indifference of the candidates.” He insisted the “contradictions of this society are too great to be endured much longer.”
“God is rising up,” Wallis concluded. “Overcome greed and selfishness. Come and join the winning side.”
But there was little at the NCC General Assembly that indicated the NCC was in any sense on the “winning side.” Embroiled in indecision and poor finances, with little ability to reach beyond the narrow circles of its liberal leadership, the NCC would appear to have little confidence in its own future.
Throughout the NCC proceedings, NCC president Andrew Young was often seen in the back of the conference hall, napping. When summoned, he approached the podium with seeming reluctance. Young’s slumber and lack of enthusiasm are surely emblematic for the NCC, which is perhaps overdue for its own retirement and deep sleep.