It’s interesting to be at a UCC General Synod meeting on July 4. The only mention of the USA’s birthday I heard at Synod yesterday was at the beginning of the day: “Happy Independence Day to our country, and Happy Interdependence Day to the United Church of Christ.” No visible US flags, no singing of “God Bless America,” no reflection on the meaning of July 4th.
Many ECOTs (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, or traditional) would be very disappointed at ignoring Independence Day, but that’s not what this blog is about. It’s about the irony that, in my view, the UCC is among the greatest beneficiaries of Americism, if not its logical result. (Americism is a descriptive term I use to describe shared values that shape our nation, especially autonomy and individualism.) The smallest of the predecessor denominations of the UCC, the Christian church, was born in the same generation as America, the religious counterpart to the political overthrow of tyranny. Congregationalism preceded the Christian church to these shores, and articulated the roots of Americism on the Mayflower. Later, German immigrants in Reformed and Evangelical churches saw in Americism their opportunity first to preserve their distinctive values without interference and then as part of the melting pot.
The UCC is adamant about free thinking, about “liberty and justice for all,” about defending and even advocating for dignity, opportunity, and the pursuit of self-actualization for every person without respect to their gender, race, identities, or labels. That’s Americism.
So why, then, does the UCC ignore Independence Day? The closest to an explanation came in “Balaam’s Courier,” an unofficial, often satirical publication that’s been distributed at GS since 1975. BC touts the party line, only further to the left. As in every case in the UCC (including General Synod!), BC speaks only for itself. BC said yesterday that Independence Day is a “difficult holiday” for the UCC because we are essentially celebrating a “Declaration of War.”
(On a side note, we saw a BUNCH of UCC’ers at the waterfront yesterday enjoying the fireworks. I don’t know if the BC people were among them or not.)
As for business yesterday, both the values of independence and interdependence were at work. The best example was whether we call God “Father.” I had hoped there would be some discussion on the proposal to remove “heavenly Father” from the UCC Constitution, Article V on the definition of a “local church.” That constitutional change was lumped with others related to a new structure, “united governance.” A process that was intended to give more quality time to discussion about the structure proposal degenerated into parliamentary chaos – including but not limited to the confusion of unrelated bylaw changes.
By the time we got to debate and action on the constitutional changes, there was no stomach left for theological discussion. So the change went through. While removing our “heavenly Father” from the constitution is disappointing, to say the least, replacing it with “the triune God” was at least a rebuff to Unitarians among us, one of whom objected to calling God “triune.” So at least we’re still officially Trinitarian.
An earlier action, however, was even more important and pervasive for theology and language important to ECOTs in the UCC. The General Synod signed on overwhelmingly to the “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism” that emerged from the Roman Catholic – Reformed Church Dialogue. The deal was that we’ll recognize baptism by Catholics and other Reformed bodies if they will recognize ours. Female and LGBT clergy felt a sense of vindication that the Catholic church and others who will not allow them to be ordained will recognize baptisms they perform.
Back to the fatherhood of God. The statement approved by General Synod says, “For our baptisms to be mutually recognized, water and scriptural Trinitarian formula, ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19-20) must be used in the baptismal rite” (Lines 212-215).
Our UCC sense of independence rejects the example of Jesus, the teaching of the Bible, and 2,000 years of Christian tradition (not to speak of our own Basis of Union and constitution Preamble) in saying that local churches need not embrace God as “our heavenly Father.”
But there is enough of a spirit of interdependence to say that it matters to us that others recognize our baptisms, and we will reciprocally honor Christian baptism in other traditions. If that means for independent-thinking UCC’ers that they need to swallow hard and say, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as they baptize (though some said they will add “expansive” language), they will.
My prayer, of course, is that this is only the beginning of the UCC choosing to allow interdependence with other Christian bodies to modify our independence in matters of theology and ethics. Americism breeds arrogance across the theological and political spectrum. The only cure for arrogance is commitment to listen to the church across the years and around the world.