THE STRUGGLE FOR LIFE WITHIN
THE UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST
By John Brown, Jr.
I find it hard to believe that a UCC pastor attended the March for Life!" This recent comment by a staffer of an evangelical family ministry is perhaps not untypical of many people today who, if they know anything of the United Church of Christ (UCC), consider it hopelessly pro-choice on life issues. While, given our history, this conclusion is hardly surprising, pro-lifers are making inroads.
Though only constituted as a denomination in 1957, the UCChas, in
fact, been consistently in favor of abortion since the early 1970s. Even before that, a
number of UCC clergy participated in the Clergy Consultation Service, founded by a UCC
pastor as a nationwide illegal abortion referral system.
The United Church Board for Homeland Ministries voted in 1970 to support a "woman's right to choose the legal option of abortion." In 1971, the General Synod of the UCC, the national representative body of the denomination, considered a Proposal for Action called "Freedom of Choice Concerning Abortion." This proposal supported a woman's right to choose abortion in the early months of pregnancy, and called upon local congregations to work for the repeal of abortion laws. It passed overwhelmingly.
In the early 1970s the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries joined a number of other church organizations in support of the Supreme Court cases which led to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. In 1973 the Homeland Ministries also became a founding member of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, a Washington-based lobbying group that supports abortion on the basis, it says, of religious freedom.
Subsequent synods have continued to support the right to abortion. Though euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide have not yet been given synod approval, they have been discussed in that forum, and there are many leaders and pastors within the church who are in support.
These actions are ironic when viewed in light of the theological and social action history of the UCC and the four theological traditions which compose it. These four streams, Evangelical and Reformed, Congregational and Christian, have exerted a major influence on the social and political life of this country.
For example, there is the impact of Congregational-Puritan congregations and covenants in New England on the American political system, the founding of the American Missionary Society and its support for the modern missionary movement, the support given to the abolition of slavery and the founding of hundreds of schools for black Americans, and the considerable resources and support given to the modern civil rights movement.
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things and a participant in the civil rights movement, has asked how it is that, considering their profound concern for the human rights of African-Americans and the poor, the leaders of that movement (which included many pastors and leaders of the UCC and other mainline churches) ended up opposing the human rights of the unborn.
The answer is too complex to attempt to answer fully here, but several issues can be discussed which help us appreciate why pro- lifers continue to have difficulty in promoting the sanctity of human life within the United Church of Christ.
One is the theological stance of the leadership and educational institutions of the denomination. The UCC "claims as its own the faith of the historic Church" and all that this means in terms of the authority of Christ, the Bible, and the work of the Holy Spirit. In practice, however, the Bible and the creeds have been increasingly interpreted from a liberal perspective, which is to say, from a modern cultural perspective. This has diminished greatly their authority, and has often led to a selective use of Scripture based not so much on the truth of the passage as its applicability to a particular social cause.
A second factor, closely related to the first, has been what some call the "feminization of theology." This attempt to view theology and the Bible in the light of women's concerns has been exploited by pro-abortion forces to increase support for abortion within the UCC.
The principle of local autonomy is the third factor. This highly valued principle means that local congregations own their own property, and are encouraged to set their own agendas and standards theologically, educationally, and financially. Churches which oppose UCC actions, for whatever reason, can by congregational vote leave the denomination. Hundreds of congregations have done so in the last 30 years. Over 25% of UCC membership has been lost in this time period. Many of those who have left were supporters of pro-life issues.
A fourth is the struggle pro-life pastors face. Such pastors know that they will get no support from conference or national leaders. Not surprisingly, there is no seminary, denominational board, or social ministry that is unequivocally pro-life.
Moreover, because many congregations are in need of spiritual renewal, it often happens that there is relatively little support for pro-life concerns, at least in the initial stages of renewal. The pastors who are concerned for encouraging renewal often face the dilemma of tackling social issues such as abortion knowing that this may be upsetting to members of the congregation, and thereby possibly undermining efforts to bring about a growth in congregational spirituality.
Despite these factors, concern for life issues and other theological and spiritual matters has continued to grow.
In 1977 two organizations were formed to work for theological and spiritual renewal within the United Church of Christ. Focus Renewal Ministries has emphasized individual and congregational renewal. The other, Biblical Witness Fellowship (BWF), has taken a more confrontational role with the UCC on a variety of social and political matters, and has also promoted a greater concern for missions.
In 1985, at an annual convention of the Biblical Witness Fellowship, a number of concerned pro-lifers sought to place more emphasis on the life issues, particularly abortion. At that time, however, not all BWF supporters and board members were pro- life. It was decided therefore that a new organization might provide the best means of working on pro-life concerns.
The organization founded in response to this initiative is now called Friends for Life (FFL). In its 13-year history FFL has attempted to influence the denomination in a variety of ways.
It began by establishing a means of communication - - producing a newsletter and building a mailing list. Another ongoing effort has been directed toward making a pro-life witness at the general synods through book tables, newsletters, pro-life banquets, pronouncements, workshops, and personal contacts. Encouraging similar activities at conference meetings has also been attempted. A book of essays, Affirming Life, was written and published in 1991.
In 1987 FFL became a member of the National Pro-Life Religious Council (NPRC), a coalition of denominational and religiously oriented groups that speaks out on pro-life issues and supports pro-life ministries.
Acting on an idea presented at an NPRC meeting, Friends for Life, in conjunction with a group in the Penn Southeast Conference of the UCC, began work on a local ecumenical pro-life venture to help women. A group of 10 congregations--UCC, Methodist, Catholic, and Evangelical--have covenanted together to provide support for women facing a crisis pregnancy who choose to bear their children.
Each church has pledged to provide at least one service, whether housing, food, or counseling centers. Hopefully, other local communities of churches will establish similar programs.
At the present moment another direction is being considered. For a number of reasons, FFL's board of directors is considering working more closely with BWF. Since 1985 BWF has become strongly pro-life while continuing to give strong support to missions and spiritual renewal within the denomination.
Moreover, BWF has a budget and membership far larger than FFL at its peak.
The Witness, BWF's feisty news-letter, reaches every UCC congregation and instrumentality, and would enable the pro-life message/witness to be heard throughout the denomination in ways not possible for FFL in earlier times. BWF, on the other hand, would benefit from the contacts and relationships FFL has built up over the years, and would enable it to speak more clearly on the life issues.
Struggle Only Begun
The struggle for life within the United Church of Christ, given the theological and sociological difficulties we face, is necessarily a multi-faceted one. There is a growing consensus that spiritual renewal, if it is to be biblical, must face the issues of abortion, euthanasia, and genetic engineering.
The members of our churches will all face these issues at one time or another. On the other hand it is understood that the life issues cannot be dealt with without worship, fellowship, prayer, and study.
The ongoing effort to bring change on the life issues within the United Church of Christ is somewhat akin to that of the pro-life movement to bring about change within our nation. Though there have been some victories, the UCC and the United States as a whole continue to promote a "culture of death."
It is increasingly clear that our efforts within the UCC must be integrally related to the efforts being made by other religious groups, as well as those committed to political change. The issues we face are global issues, far beyond the resources of any one pro-life denomination or pro-life group.
Speaking as a Christian, I believe that God may well be using these troubling issues as one means of drawing the various groups committed to the historic Christian faith into a substantial and cohesive unity. Despite the considerable differences among the various Christian traditions, there remains enormous common ground on the fundamental truths of faith and life.
Together they could better witness to the truth of the faith, and more effectively contribute to a growing "culture of life," wherein every human being, young or old, male or female, disabled or able-bodied, born or unborn, would be respected and cherished.