UMAction Briefing HomepageMark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy


Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy
February 23, 1999

The executive board of the National Council of Churches (NCC) took a break from its February meeting for an Ash Wednesday service at the United Nations Church Center Chapel in New York. The Church Center is owned by the Women's Division of the United Methodist Church and serves as a base of operations for mainline churches interacting with the United Nations just across the street.

But the service might bolster accusations by the NCC's critics that it is preoccupied with political and social reform to the exclusion of Christian mission. The front of the chapel included not only a cross but also banners displaying the emblems for the Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish faiths. The lengthy litany for the service never mentioned Jesus Christ. And the hymn, although based on Charles Wesley's "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," was sung to more recent words penned by radical former Catholic nun Miriam Therese Winter:

O for a world where everyone respects each other's ways, Where love is lived and all is done with justice and with praise.

O for a world where goods are shared and misery relieved, Where truth is spoken, children spared, equality achieved.

We welcome one world family and struggle with each choice, That opens us to unity and gives our vision voice.

Winter's ode to worldly utopia replaced Wesley's stately salute to Jesus Christ as a Redeemer, God and King, who "breaks the power of cancelled sin," and whose "blood can make the foulest clean." And although Ash Wednesday is supposed to begin Lent's 40 days of penitence and soul-searching, the litany for this service emphasized "increased political collaboration...with the United Nations," "liberation and empowerment for all groups," "sustainable economic order," and an "ecologically just world."

The litany made no mention of sin, repentance, God's grace or the culminating event of the Lenten Season, the Easter celebration of Christ's resurrection from His atoning death upon a cross. The only citation of Christ during the service came from a brief Scripture reading from 1 Peter and the closing prayer. The omission seemed odd, as the service was sponsored exclusively by Christian groups: not only the NCC, but Church Women United, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, the Baptist World Alliance, the United Methodist Office for the UN, the Presbyterian UN Office, and the United Church Board of World Ministries, among others.

After the service, the NCC Executive Board reconvened into a closed session to discuss concerns within the NCC about General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell's administrative leadership. The board agreed to hire an interim general manager to preside over the day-to-day administrative functions of the NCC. Meanwhile, the general secretary will continue to serve as a spokesperson and spiritual leader for the NCC. The interim general manager will work in "partnership" with Campbell's until her term ends in December 2000. And the interim general manager will report directly to the NCC's president. Episcopal Bishop Craig Anderson is the current president, to be replaced by former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young in November. Campbell's successor as general secretary will have a role in hiring the next general manager.

In open session, the executive board agreed to six public policy priorities in 1999:

  1. Supporting the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel all Third World debt to developed nations.
  2. Ensuring full Social Security coverage for all needy persons.
  3. Liberalizing immigration laws and ensuring full welfare coverage for immigrants.
  4. Pushing for U.S. acceptance of the Kyoto Agreement, which would mandate reduced use of fossil fuels.
  5. Lobbying for increased welfare programs and an increased minimum wage.
  6. Strengthening public education through federal grants for school modernization and reduced class size.

The board briefly considered a proposal to spend $1.4 million in celebrating the NCC's 50th anniversary later this year. But several board members thought the amount excessive and asked for the proposal to be redesigned.

For several hours the board adjourned so as to attend a meeting of the United Nations Commission on Social Development, which featured an ecumenical panel about the dangerous social impact of free markets. Cynthia Moe-Loebda, a doctoral candidate at Union Theological Seminar in New York, warned of a close alliance in the U.S. between "fundamentalist" Christians and pro-free market organizations. She also outlined various economic "myths," such as claims that free markets promote democracy or that human beings are motivated by individual self-interest rather than the wider interests of their community.

Jorge Domingues, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, warned of the free market's effect on young people. The claim by free market enthusiasts that wealth "will trickle down to the less fortunate" is wrong, he said. Free markets can breed child labor, the destruction of cultural diversity, and widening wage gaps between men and women, he claimed.

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