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July 13th, 2015

The quote that says more to me about the UCC’s 2015 General Synod in Cleveland, Ohio than any other is probably the one below. These are the words of retiring UCC General Minister and President included in a video tribute to him –

Never before in our nation’s history have the core values and beliefs of the United Church of Christ been more in sync with the cultural trajectory of our nation – inclusiveness, authenticity, openness, and new expressions of embracing science and spirituality and running toward and not away from new thinking and new technology.

As I sat in the plenary hall and heard these words for the first time, the question that came to my mind was, “And that’s a good thing?” The UCC and its predecessor denominations have proudly challenged the prevailing culture for centuries. Now we’re in sync. Has the UCC’s message transformed the culture or has the culture intruded into church?

The in-sync-ness of UCC and culture was never more true or in evidence than at this General Synod when the UCC celebrated the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States extending the right of gay marriage across the nation. For those of us in Faithful and Welcoming Churches, some of those moments of celebration were admittedly uncomfortable, since one key FWC principle is being faithful “to the practice and proclamation of human sexuality as God’s gift for marriage between a man and a woman.” The videos, the platform speakers, the same sex weddings, and more were at times hard to swallow for ECOTs (our self-describing acronym for Evangelical, Conservative, Orthodox, or Traditional).

And yet I came home from this Synod more encouraged about being ECOT in the UCC than I have been in all my 37 years in the United Church of Christ. How could that be?

First, I went to Synod expecting the Supreme Court decision and the celebrations. My wife Linda, who coordinates our exhibit booth at General Synod, and I both realized that SCOTUS decision was likely during Synod. We prayed in advance for wisdom and grace. The Lord answered that prayer. One example: when the breaking news hit, I was in a pre-Synod training meeting with other committee chairs (more on that later), and the meeting paused as most people in the room cheered and clapped.  I wasn’t sure what if anything to say, but it turned out I didn’t need to say anything. One of the committee leaders said, “I’m very happy today, but we all need to remember is that not everyone celebrates this decision. Good people differ on this ruling.” It was a moment of grace that would continue through the Synod. Our first priority was to be among the good people who differ.

Second, it’s a matter of remembering why we’re there. On the FWC web site we outline our strategy with four words: Prayer, Presence, Proclamation, and Persuasion. The “P” that’s not on the list is “Power.” We don’t stay in the UCC and don’t mark our effectiveness by gaining more delegates or changing people’s minds or tracking reversals of positions with which we disagree. Would we love to see all of that happen? Of course! But changing lives is the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not why we’re there.

We know we’re a small minority in the UCC – or at least at the General Synod. I like to say representing FWC at General Synod feels like setting up a booth for Obamacare at a Tea Party Convention. Ideologically, that analogy works. But I wouldn’t want to suggest there is animosity when FWC folks go to General Synod. On the whole, UCC people are nice people – there is a genuine spirit of welcome “no matter where you are on life’s journey,” and that includes us. Our ‘safety yellow’ tshirts this year declared this in large letters on the back: “I am WELCOME here.” We almost wrote it in the form of a question, “Am I welcome here?” But the truth is, we are increasingly finding that the welcome to us is genuine and widespread. Our opening line in the exhibit booth or elsewhere is often something like, “FWC is here to encourage more evangelical or conservative churches and pastors to stay in the UCC.” The most common response is, “That’s really great. I may not agree with you, but we want all our churches to stay.”

The celebration of Same Sex Marriage notwithstanding, the welcome we felt for FWC folks (tshirt or not) seemed deeper and broader this year. The General Synod itself seemed more theologically and ideologically diverse.

  • There were more FWC-friendly folks in attendance at the Synod than in previous years. (We also had better and deeper fellowship with one another.)
  • A couple of the most radical resolutions were rejected, as in labeling the actions of Israel against Palestine “apartheid.”
  • A number of the other resolutions, even if passed (such as the resolution encouraging divestment in Israel) provoked healthy debate in committee and/or plenary session.
  • At this Synod we were more likely to hear the name of Jesus, an invitation to the Holy Spirit, a plea for prayer or actual prayer, and less likely to hear theological language that ECOTs find off-putting. Apparently God really is still speaking in the UCC!
  • In spite of, or perhaps because of, my being FWC President, I was invited to chair one of the ten 75-member committees that processes the proposed resolutions before they come to the floor. At the least, that takes away some of the negative stigma associated with being ECOT in the UCC.
  • Because of (a) that committee chair assignment, (b) FWC’s intentionality about showing up for 5 consecutive synods, (c) holding annual FWC board meetings in the UCC’s church house, and mostly because of (d) the gracious work of God in answer to prayers, I realized by the end of Synod I was on a first-name (and friendly!) basis with all the members of the UCC’s collegium, the incoming General Minister and President, the moderator, the Vice-chair of the UCC board plus other board members, key persons on the business and committee process, the Executive Director and other key members of the ONA coalition, the chair of the Council of Conference Ministers and several other CMs, the chief legal counsel, the UCC’s top Ecumenical officer, two key leaders of the United Church of Canada, and more. Several of these made a special effort to express genuine respect and appreciation to me, knowing full well the principles of the organization I represent. I think that’s real progress!
  • We had good attendance and feedback at our FWC dinner introducing the ministry of Cruxifusion, a “Christ-centered” renewal group in Canada that might spawn something similar in the UCC. While at FWC we’re concerned about what happens with same sex marriage, we are much more concerned about pointing the Church and the world to Jesus Christ and the historic faith that is centered in him. Only Jesus has the power to transform his Church.
  • I also have been in touch with two other more progressively minded pastors who want the UCC to work much harder on the local and wider church levels to make its “radical inclusion” inclusive of ECOTs. This is in addition to my own Conference Minister, Rev. Edward Davis, who has made this very quest a passion of his in the Southern Conference. See my blog after the Southern Conference annual meeting, which preceded the General Synod by a week.

All of this was, I must say, exhausting for Linda and me, who are true introverts only pretending to be extroverts when that’s needed. So after General Synod we took a couple of days (also to celebrate our 37th anniversary!) at Pipestem State Park in West Virginia. It rained most of the time we were there, but that was OK with us. On our final morning, I took the picture below from the lodge balcony overlooking the nearby mountains. It was raining at the time, and only the closest vegetation was in focus. Everything beyond was hazy.

Isn’t that a great metaphor for your life and ours, as well as for our work in Christ’s church? We are rarely privileged to see very far with clarity. All we know is the next step. Beyond that, we know our heavenly Father is already there, and we find our comfort in remembering we belong to him.

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