In the olden days of Facebook, the “about me” section was whatever you wanted it to be. You could write all sorts of crazy poetry or whatever, in order to state IN YOUR OWN WORDS what you wanted people to know about you.
Part of the intent of this blog is to post little tidbits that communicate ABOUT ME to people. Enjoy!
I have a pretty big chip on my shoulder so I am not really allowed to write about the UCC too much in public. But it is part of who I am, so I felt it appropriate to make a post about it.
Long story short, as a result of my somewhat traumatic experiences deep inside the organizational structure of the UCC, I am incredibly informed about mechanics of the church culture wars, I have pretty strong opinions about obscure theological topics, and I am pretty good at having online discussions in a very civil and entertaining fashion. Now, I just have to figure out what to do with these unique and somewhat useless online conversational skills.
Recently (in 2014), the UCC did even more crazytown things, as usual. I am not even surprised. Today, one of my friends posted a facebook article about it, and the comments section below the article lit up with all kinds of shock and dismay from Christians who did not realize that there are such crazytown denominations out there. Here is my comment that I made. I think it is a great summary of a long and complex rant/book I want to write someday:
I actually grew up in the UCC. The local congregations were always relatively mainstream/traditional/boring, and by the denomination’s founding, the national leadership had almost no theological authority (aka Congregationalism). By design, the denomination was supposed to be a “united and uniting” body, so local congregations were given a lot of autonomy to practice their different traditions (reformed / lutheran / etc) and live towards Christ’s prayer of “that they may all be one.” What happened in practice was that certain local congregations would do crazytown things (think Jeremiah Wright’s “America’s chickens have come home to roost” / “God Damn America” sermons at Barack Obama’s Trinity UCC) and the national leadership would boast about how progressive the UCC is. The national leadership slowly got taken over by hardcore leftists but congregations ignored them and withheld funds in protest. In 2004, denominational leaders in Cleveland decided to brand the UCC as “Progressive Christianity” despite the protests of local congregations. UCC leaders paid a New York advertising firm millions of dollars to develop an ad campaign. I spent several years working with other UCCers online to bring the denomination back into sanity, but despite an encouraging resolution passed by the General Synod in 2007 ( http://www.ucc.org/assets/pdfs/gs26-9.pdf ) the denomination made it clear by its actions that they were doubliung down on their new “mostly progressive” identity campaign. In 2008 I made the difficult decision to cut ties with the UCC and have been a full time WEAGer ever since. Thought you’d be interested in another perspective! 🙂
Here is what Wikipedia currently has to say about criticism of the UCC:
The church’s diversity and adherence to covenantal polity (rather than government by regional elders or bishops) give individual congregations a great deal of freedom in the areas of worship, congregational life, and doctrine. Nonetheless, some critics, mainly social and theological conservatives, are vocal about the UCC’s theology, political identity, and cultural milieu.
More conservative members of the UCC have complained that the UCC has lost members because of its “theological surrender to the moral and spiritual confusion of contemporary culture..” This movement has focused its complaints on the “often radically liberal political agenda” of the UCC.
Conservatives have complained that UCC members are “probably the most left-leaning of all major U.S. denominations.”These critics have complained that the UCC attempts to control “how liberal Christians should think in politically correct terms about climate controversies, socialized medicine, the U.S. presence in Iraq, immigration and the Welfare State.”
Criticism over same-sex marriage
The UCC has been severely criticized for its stand on same-sex marriage. In fact, citing differences over “the membership and ministry of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians,” the UCC’s Puerto Rico Conference left the church in 2006.
Criticism of sex education
Critics have complained that the UCC’s focus on sex education, including the distribution of condoms, does not provide appropriate moral context for sex and has failed in “reinforcing the traditional Christian ethic reserving sex for marriage.”
Sources of criticism
The conservative-leaning Institute on Religion and Democracy has been consistently critical of the UCC, complaining that the denomination “is stuck in the liberal theology and politics of the 1960s” and makes conservatives feel unwelcome.
Internal critics have also complained that the UCC has “set on a course of dishonest political activism” without the knowledge of the local congregations.
Outcries have been so strong among conservative congregations that they have ended their affiliations with the denomination, in many cases terminating decades of association with one of the UCC’s four major traditions. This became especially pronounced in the months following the decision of General Synod 25 to endorse same-sex marriage. Three denominations have in particular been beneficiaries of their decisions: the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (founded in the late 1950s in opposition to the UCC merger), the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (founded in the 1940s as a more conservative alternative), and the Evangelical Association of Reformed and Congregational Christian Churches (founded in the 1990s, mostly by E&R-heritage churches). However, quite a number of withdrawing congregations have decided to operate independently, influenced perhaps by the recent growth and success of non-denominational fellowships throughout the U.S.
Still other congregations have decided to remain in the denomination but withhold financial support for “Our Church’s Wider Mission” (OCWM). They say their goal is to avoid funding conference and national programs and policies they find objectionable. Many of those churches are openly affiliated with two conservative “renewal” organizations, the Biblical Witness Fellowship and the North Carolina-based Faithful and Welcoming group, both of which have tried, largely unsuccessfully, to lobby the General Synod (and some conferences) to renounce politically and theologically liberal stances on a number of issues.
Five Follow-on points (this is the outline of the long and complex rant):
(1) I was shaped by Online Discussions and Church Discussion Community.
(2) I formed a concept (UCC-P versus UCC-U) that shaped follow-on conversations and actions.
(3) I left the UCC conversation because I no longer believed that the UCC stood for Church Unity.
(4) I am haunted by a sense that I might still have a role in ecumenical dialogue.
(5) I don’t really know what I am “doing” in the church anymore.
(1) I was shaped by Online Discussions and Church Discussion Community. During the period 2005-2008, I had several intense formative experiences online that involved having conflict with people very different from me who were all (self included) learning how to have civil and conversations online. This experience made me really attracted to online discussions and shaped my online experience in a way that most people still don’t understand. The UCC Online community that I became a part of was a phpbb2-based forum hosted on the UCC website. I met people from around the USA and the world: some un-ordained denominational church leaders, some UCC pastors, some lay UCC members, and some people completely unfamiliar with the UCC — and all contributed their perspectives to sometimes heated discussions. Posing as “Richmond T. Stallgiss,” I made (what I believed to be) very coherent and impassioned arguments about the troubling direction that the UCC was headed. I began my time there by posting “Seven Theses” (in the manner of Martin Luther’s 95 theses) that were very useful in shaping the subsequent debates happening there. In addition to my impact/contributions to the community, I also gained much in terms of being shaped by others’ theological knowledge, different perspectives, and techniques for having conflict in person and online.
(2) I formed a concept (UCC-P versus UCC-U) that shaped follow-on conversations and actions. Ultimately, one of my major insights from the UCCforums discussions was an ability to articulate exactly what was felt wrong with the UCC.
–> One the one hand, I loved the UCC-U (U for Uniting)– the church I grew up in was formed with the intention of being a “united and uniting” denomination, and I always understood it to be welcoming to a vast array of political and theological positions. the UCC-U I grew up with seemed diverse enough to encompass the entire political spectrum in a “heady and exasperating mix”… the mantra I grew up with was always, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity” … but in 2003 the national branding campaign started to change all that.
–> On this new “other hand,” there was the UCC-P (P for Progressive)– the leadership of the UCC had decided amongst themselves to brand as an explicitly “mostly progressive” (left-leaning) political direction. They used the phrase “God is still speaking” and the symbol of a comma to emphasize that the UCC could add to previous understandings about “prophets” of “justice” and to reinterpret Holy Scripture to “take the Bible seriously, but not literally.” They sought opportunities to be “prophetic” and “speak truth to power.” They seemed to feel their more conservative members were simply immature for not holding left-leaning beliefs. The communications of the “new” UCC-P were such that all websites and promotional materials reinforced “five historic commitments” that included not just “united and uniting” but also…
“multiracial and multicultural” [not just sensitive to minority concerns within church congregations, but leftist political agitators for ethnic and racial minorities, particularly Native Americans and African Americans using narratives of colonialism and militant black ideologies]
“accessible to all” [not just advocates for wheelchair- blind- and deaf- friendly church accommodations, but politically activist for the differently–abled]
“open and affirming” [not just pro-gay , but politically activist for LGBT rights and for the completed erasure of all cultural stigma against LGBT activities]
“peace with justice [not just lovers of peace, but political activists… advocates of anti-israel (Sabeel) divestment politics … organizers of general leftist activism… participants in anti-war marches in the vein of Vietnam era anti-war politics… public critics of George Bush, prominent republicans, evangelicals and fundamentalists, and perceived right-leaning news media such as Fox News… active participants in promoting the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama… explicit calls to acticism in the name of Jesus, such as the obligation to “comfort the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable” ]
I used the “UCC-U vs UCC-P” distinction to help articulate to people why I was perfectly willing to be in a denomination with left-leaning people, but as a political independent with conservative sympathies, I did not feel comfortable being in a denomination whose national leadership, conference leadership, association leadership, seminary leadership, and communications leadership all basically agreed that the UCC was “mostly progressive” and committed to leftist activism. These two denominational understandings (UCC-P and UCC-U) seemed incompatible to me, and it was only through intense online conversation that I was able to identify, articulate, and discuss the UCC-P identity that ran throughout the UCC leadership. Parallel to my online converastions, a new group sprang up in the UCC under the sustained leadership of a man named Bob Thompson. Called “Faithful and Welcoming” (in contrast to “Open and Affirming”) the upstart organization drew attention to the “ECOT” (Evangelical, Conservative, Orthodox, or Traditional) that remained in the denomination despite leftist proclamations. In this light, if you reread the above post then you may be able to see why I feel like the conversations I had with UCC leaders was time well spent.
(3) I left the UCC conversation because I no longer believed that the UCC stood for Church Unity. At some point in 2008, I realized that the church I loved, the UCC-U, was dead or dying and that it was time for me to leave both my local church and the UCC denomination at large. FWC was sticking it to the UCC-P and I was drained and needed a sanctuary where I didn’t need to feel like I was fighting a political battle every time I went to church. In addition to leaving my local congregation, I stopped participating in the UCC online community because new social media (Myspace, Facebook) and and the ability to leave comments on news articles had disrupted the dynamics of online commnity interaction and conversation. (The UCC, in a bold move, further expedited the ecumenical conversation by delinking UCCforums from the main UCC site and hosting it at uccforums.com in a way that it looked like it was not affiliated at all with the “mostly progressive” denomination.) In the summer of 2008, I pretty much said goodbye to the United church of Crazytown. I felt good knowing that there would be other people within the UCC to hold the denominational leadership’s feet to the fire.
(4) I am haunted by a sense that I might still have a role in ecumenical dialogue. So here, eleven years after the inception of the UCC’s leftist branding campaign and seven years after leaving the UCC, I am still a bit afflicted by UCC PTSD and haunted by a sense that I might still have a special role in uniting Christian community. I have always been a connector amongst the large Christian community in Richmond, to the degree that my facebook name was “Sceneone Richmond” until very recently. Meanwhile I have ongoing familial connections to the UCC so that I am aware of the struggles there. My father retired as a UCC pastor in 2010 but he continues active UCC membership. His participation in several UCC churches and his activities with his network of clergy often serve to me as reminders of the continuing good and very bad things about the UCC. I become aware of ridiculous UCC controversies and I die a little on the inside knowing that the FWC is still striving for ecumenicism within what I view as a failed experiment/enterprise. Part of my therapy in these situations has been to reread and refine this blog post or to talk to friends who have had similar traumatic experiences with the UCC or other crazytown denominational struggles.
(5) I don’t really know what I am “doing” in the church anymore.(warning, this paragraph is a mess, and you will understand why if you read it all the way through) For a while, I used my role within WEAG’s young adult community to sow “the church of the future” with seeds of ecumenical sensibility. I tried to teach people about basic Bible literacy, as well as healthy relationships and healthy conflict. And then at some point I realized that teaching young adult Bible studies is not my role anymore. And I don’t know what is next. I see posts like this one ( http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/february/3-ways-to-encourage-peace-between-generations-in-denominati.html ) and I want to post it to the UCCforums until I realize that that online ecumenical community is dead. So I don’t know what to do with this wisdom. And then I want to start an online ecumenical community. The fact is I truly believe that I was a part of holy conversations, and that God could, even today, use my traumatic experience with the UCC to carry the torch for the “united and uniting church” even if the UCC has abandoned that calling. Every once in a while I come across evangelical blog posts disparaging the existence of denominations, or I see a poor use of conflict skills, and I wonder whether there is a role for me somehow in taking the lessons I learned in the UCC ten years ago and helping people to create online community. And so I come over to this blog and I post it at the bottom and hope that someday someone will see it and learn something. I don’t know. I am going to leave this paragraph in a messy and unedited state because I don’t really have confidence that another hour of blogging is going to get me any clarity on the UCC or what to do about online community. All I know, is the UCC makes me crazy.