Institute on Religion and Democracy
July 22, 2000
Beset by financial deficits and political controversy, the nation's largest ecumenical agency says it wants to reorganize under a new umbrella that would include Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. The famously liberal National Council of Churches (NCC) now includes 35 denominations, most of them mainline Protestant, and a few of which are Eastern Orthodox. Over 50 million Americans belong to NCC denominations.
But most of the NCC's largest denominations have suffered deep membership declines for 35 years or more. The NCC's critics say it has moved from being mainline to sideline, more renowned for its reflexively left-leaning politics than fostering genuine Christian unity. Fewer than one in three American church members now belong to an NCC denomination.
Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Southern Baptist Convention, which are America's largest religious bodies, belongs to the NCC. Fast-growing Pentecostal and independent evangelical congregations have shown little to no interest in the NCC. Recognizing these demographic trends and its own financial troubles, the NCC at its May 2000 board meeting in Washington, DC, suggested a new ecumenical body that would include Catholics and Evangelicals.
But the proposal was vague. And it failed to explain why Catholics and Evangelicals would be tempted to join forces with troubled Protestant agencies that often fail to represent their own claimed constituencies.
The proposal is largely the result of the NCC's deficit troubles. Over 80 percent of the NCC's income comes from its relief arm, Church World Service (CWS), which retains a popular following and provides a tangible service. The remainder of the NCC, largely devoted to political action and publications, suffered a deficit of almost $4 million last year.
The NCC has traditionally relied on CWS to cover its deficits, but supporters of the relief agency have become increasingly vocal in their protests. At its May board meeting, the NCC agreed to grant the relief agency more budgetary autonomy, although it stills falls under the NCC's final authority. Meanwhile, the NCC's is still trying to extract donations from member churches to erase last year's deficit.
NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar told Ecumencal News Service that the CWS controversy led to a consensus that it "was time to build on the last 50 years - not to recreate it, but to open it to Catholic, Pentecostal and Evangelical communities."
"It's time for the Christian community in the U.S. to kiss and make up and covenant," Edgar said, in reference to the theological and political differences that divide U.S. churches. He hopes for a new ecumenical arrangement that includes Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and liberal Protestants. One precedent is in Great Britain, where the old British Council of Churches was dissolved in favor of a new group, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, which includes Roman Catholics and Evangelicals.
British church liberals have complained that the new British ecumenical arrangement has restrained the religious radicalism they preferred. The NCC 's Edgar has echoed this concern about the NCC's potential successor organization, insisting that any new umbrella must maintain a "prophetic voice."
A "vision team" of eight persons will explore the NCC's options for broadening its base and will report to its annual assembly in November. Edgar said the NCC has already informed the U.S. Catholic bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals of its hopes for more formalized cooperation. Southern Baptists will be contacted soon, he pledged.
NCC board member Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who is also general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, pointed out that Roman Catholics currently belong to 55 ecumenical councils around the world. "We can learn from them," he enthused, expressing hope that Roman Catholics in the U.S. will likewise consider cooperation in a new ecumenical organization.
The Rev. Bruce Robbins, an NCC board member who represents the United Methodist Church, which is the NCC's largest member denomination, also was enthusiastic about the proposal. He predicted that a "new ecumenical vehicle" could "looks towards greater unity" and would enable the NCC constituency to "talk to partners with whom we've not spoken at all" in the past. Robbins admitted that the NCC is not presently representative of "that broad constituency" that comprises American Christianity.
Largely ignored at the NCC board meeting were the reasons for the NCC's unpopularity with many American Christians, including many member of NCC denominations. Critics of the NCC point to the NCC's frequent theological ambiguity. One worship session at the NCC meeting, for example, was led by an openly homosexual church leader. Critics also point to the NCC's penchant for very liberal political pronouncements that do not reflect the beliefs of more conservative church members.
At this particular meeting, the NCC affirmed its continuing cooperation with the New York Civil Liberties Union to expose "police brutality," re-affirmed its role in the "Universal Health Care Campaign 2000" that seeks federal government control of the U.S. health care system, urged continued organizing on "climate change" (i.e. Global Warming) issues, pledged litigation against "school vouchers" that would provide inner-city children alternatives to public schools, and urged support for prison chaplains extolling Islam, traditional Native American beliefs, and other non-Christian religions.
The board also discussed its opposition to capital punishment. And the board reiterated its cooperation with liberal activist groups such as the Children's Defense Fund that demand a greater federal government role in welfare programs. An NCC resolution wants to make the "NCC constituency a potent political force in debates around pivotal legislation affecting poverty elimination." In a special appearance before the board, Washington attorney Greg Craig thanked the NCC for helping to raise money to pay his legal bills in the Elian Gonzalez case. With help from the NCC, Craig led the legal effort to return the little Cuban refugee boy back to Cuba.
In marked contrast to the NCC's usually sharply politicized version of the Gospel was a speech delivered by the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who is the new chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives. Formerly the director of spiritual formation for the Archdiocese of Chicago, he unequivocally said his role is to share "the risen Christ," not to dispense political advice. "I have come that you might have life and life to the full," he said, quoting Jesus'words from the Gospel of John.
Coughlin described the challenge of living a "resurrection life" and learning to listen for God's voice. He described America as a "great nation" and his own awe as he daily passes the statues of heroic Americans that line the Capitol hallways. Coughlin shared his regret over the nation' s cynicism over its elected officials. "It's dreadful how people talk about people in government," he complained. "We are a grace nation. I believe in Christ and His presence in our government."
When asked by an NCC board member how Coughlin could employ his role as chaplain to challenge congressmen in a "prophetic" (i.e. political) way, the chaplain quickly replied that he had no forum that would allow him to be prophetic. If his priestly vocation demanded him to be vocal on political issues, then he would have to resign as chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives, he strongly implied. The NCC board members, regularly accustomed to employing their church positions for political maneuvering, seemed slightly befuddled by Coughlin's clear preference for proclaiming the Gospel over partisan jockeying.