Institute on Religion and Democracy
CHURCH COUNCIL STALLS ON ECUMENICAL OUTREACH
March 1, 2001
The troubled National Council of Churches (NCC) appears to have stalled in its effort to reach out to Evangelicals. At the NCC’s February 2001 executive board meeting in New York, it was admitted that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) will probably not be part of any major cooperation with the NCC. And it was not clear that relations with the U.S. Roman Catholics bishops will get any closer.
Beset by severe financial troubles and continued membership losses by its member churches, the NCC for the last year has trumpeted enhanced cooperation with Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. It has even suggested a possible successor organization to the NCC that would include Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. The NCC is comprised of mainline Protestant churches and several Eastern Orthodox communions.
Presbyterian Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, in a very brief report to his fellow NCC board members, said it was “not likely” that the NAE would help “sponsor” an ecumenical summit late this year that the NCC had proposed. Kirkpatrick expressed hope that “maybe” a few of the NAE’s member communions might join with the NCC in future cooperation. The Salvation Army is one possibility, he said. In a later comment, Kirkpatrick also conceded that the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, also was not interested in cooperation with the NCC.
Kirkpatrick mentioned that the NCC had met with representatives of the U.S. Catholic bishops to persuade them to co-sponsor an ecumenical summit this Fall. The Roman Catholic bishops will vote on that proposal at their June meeting, according to Kirkpatrick.
Unmentioned by anyone at the NCC meeting, was a major reason for the NAE’s lack of interest in cooperation with the NCC. A “Christian Declaration on Marriage,” endorsed by the NAE and the Roman Catholic bishops last November, initially got the NCC’s backing. But pressure from homosexual activists persuaded NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar to withdraw his signature because the Declaration defined marriage as the union of man and woman.
The NCC seemed to have slightly better news about its finances. A $2 million bail-out by its larger member churches helped to prevent deficit spending in 2000. But the NCC’s financial future is far from secure.
As of January, the NCC’s revenues were $237,000 under expectations for the first six months of fiscal year 2001. Meanwhile, spending is $673,000 over budget for that period. Bob Edgar expressed hope that foundation grants and funds owed to the NCC by Americorps, a U.S. Government program, would help make up that deficit. The NCC’s annual budget is about $7 million. It now has little room for red ink, as a $5.9 million deficit in 1999 already erased most of its remaining reserves.
NCC Treasurer Phil Young, a Presbyterian NCC board member, reported that the NCC currently collects only $l.6 million from its member denominations but needs to collect $2.4 million for its future budget needs. “The system has not worked,” he said, noting that half of the NCC’s 36 member churches contribute nothing or nearly nothing to the NCC’s Ecumenical Commitment Fund.
One of the reasons for the NCC’s controversial reputation and, arguably, its membership decline and financial troubles, is its long-term preference for the political over the theological. The NCC’s political statements have often upset more conservative church goers in its member denominations. At its February meeting, the NCC board once again endorsed a series of political statements with little serious discussion.
One NCC statement endorsed a campaign against Exxon/Mobil for that oil conglomerate’s refusal to acknowledge the threat of “global warming.” Although scientists do not agree about the theory, the NCC is one of global warming’s most ardent champions. The NCC resolution calls global warming “one of the most serious problems our world faces.” It prophesies extreme weather, sea-level rises, heat waves and droughts. The campaign against Exxon/Mobil demands that the company “take full responsibility for its role in climate change.” It also demands that the company link executive compensation with “environmental performance.”
The NCC also approved a resolution opposing “Plan Colombia,” a U.S. program to fund Colombian military actions against drug producers in that country. The resolution charges that the program’s emphasis on aerial fumigation of drug crops will displace Colombian farmers and force them into already crowded cities. It also warns that the “destruction of food crops” is a “human rights abuse.” And it claimed that the U.S. Government’s “emphasis on law enforcement strategies has failed to reduce demand or minimize the harm associated with drugs.”
“The whole region is ripe for increased violence,” Bob Edgar said. “We’re contributing to that violence by our silence.” He complained that the U.S. policy is to try to “stop drugs with money.” Instead, he urged the U.S. to emphasize drug treatment programs.
Before the vote, Paul Meyendorff of the Orthodox Church in America warned that the resolution could be “interpreted as the NCC being liberal on drugs.” And several Evangelical Lutheran Church in America board members said they would have to abstain, since, without advance notice, they had not had the opportunity to discuss the resolution within their own communion. Otherwise, the resolution passed easily. “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is opposed to Plan Columbia,” enthused Bell Miller McMaster, a board member from Georgia, who urged full support for the NCC statement.
The NCC also voted to “deplore” the “damage that the NATO bombing caused to the environment and the people of Yugoslavia.” The resolution compared the environmental damage there to other perceived U.S. military assaults on the environment, including the atomic bomb attacks on Japan during World War II, the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, the U.S. bombing of Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. Naval presence in Puerto Rico, and toxic wastes left behind by former U.S. military bases in the Philippines. It did not mention any environmental damage done by countries other than the U.S. or its allies.
Among other actions in the resolution, the NCC asks for a ban on “depleted uranium” weapons, and for all NATO countries, especially the U.S., to “repair the damage done to the environment and the people of Yugoslavia.” The resolution passed easily, with only a few abstentions.
The featured speaker at the NCC meeting was liberal welfare champion Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund. In acclaiming Wright, Edgar called her group “our prophetic leading voice” in the NCC’s “Mobilization to Overcome Poverty.”
“It’s time for us to end child poverty in America,” exclaimed Wright. “Our children are in great peril.” She criticized President George W. Bush’s proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut because it is “untargeted.” She also opposed a proposed elimination of the estate tax. “It takes my breath away to see our national leaders give still more breaks to the top,” she bemoaned. “That’s wrong.” Edelman did like increasing the child deduction from $500 to $1,000, which President Bush has proposed. But she also wants it to be made a refund for parents who not pay taxes.
“We need new public theater,” Edelman said, proposing a new “massive public awareness campaign” against poverty that would include street demonstrations and “stroller parades.”
“I can’t believe how hard it is to get this country to do the right thing for children,” she complained. Calling for a “visible mobilization of congregations” to demand increased federal welfare programs, Edelman declared, “This is movement time.”
“Martin Luther King got us out of the Egypt of apartheid,” she concluded. “Now we’re struggling in the wilderness of materialism. We need to head to the promised land.”
For Wright, and evidently for the NCC, the promised land is not a place of milk and honey. In their vision, the promised land is an restricted welfare state in which all human needs are fulfilled by the federal government.
With such a confining and outdated notion of the church’s role in our nation, the NCC’s struggles, both financial and spiritual, are likely to continue.