Ah, summertime, when the livin’s easy, the cotton is high, and denominational bodies convene to regret, bestir, and proclaim. After the cosmic liturgical drama of Advent, Lent, and Easter, the over-churched among us must look to national meetings of Christians to supply the kind of sturm und drang that ordinary time seems to lack. It’s high season for supply preachers, who this year learned that pastors deserted their pulpits for denominational events during the long trudge through Luke, when Jesus seems to be at his most irritating and precise.
This issue of Let’s Talk features extensive coverage of the ELCA’s biannual summer meeting in Chicago. I wish to complement that reporting and analysis with a brief summary of what’s been going on in other branches of the universal Church here in the United States.
The Reformed Church in America, a full communion partner of the ELCA, kicked off the church convention season at Central College in Pella, Iowa, meeting from June 7-12. According to the denomination’s online news service, the General Synod’s business focused largely on matters of governance. The Synod provisionally adopted the Belhar Confession, a 1982 document of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa that strongly opposed Apartheid and any racial policy or ideology that separated the Body of Christ. The Synod also dedicated itself to a more missional outlook in congregations.
The nation’s largest Protestant communion, the Southern Baptist Conference, met on June 12 and 13 in San Antonio, Texas. The Conference endorsed eight resolutions on subjects from cooperative giving (good) to hate crime laws (bad). The rhetorical style is more frontier preacher than church bureaucratic—“There is a great need for a new generation of pastors to take the lead in courageously confronting an American culture and government that is hurtling downward to new depths of moral decadence”—though perhaps church bureaucrats speak differently in that denomination. One resolution denounced the Dred Scott decision on its 150th anniversary without mentioning any church culpability for the ideology of racism and slavery, which is only curious in light of a later resolution calling for individual and corporate repentance. And the Convention showed that it isn’t afraid of being stereotyped as a backward, anti-science denomination by firmly rejecting any limits on carbon emissions to combat global warming.
Meeting ten days later in Hartford, Connecticut, the United Church of Christ’s biannual General Synod could hardly have sounded a more different tone. The Synod featured Barack Obama, Bill Moyers, Marian Wright Edelman, Lynn Redgrave, Walter Brueggeman, and Peter Gomes, a reflection, perhaps, of the church’s eager embrace of political activism and progressive causes. The connection between personal faith and public life was a major theme of the Synod, which approved policy-oriented resolutions from depleted uranium weapons (bad) to legalized physician assistance in dying (good). The UCC resolution on global warming had a much different tone and outcome than the SBC’s: it acknowledged “Christian complicity” in damage to the environment and urged the federal government to move quickly and decisively to restrict greenhouse emissions. The Synod was the denomination’s 26th, marking its 50-year anniversary. Over 9,000 delegates attended the lively and even revivalistic event.
Our brothers and sisters in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod met from July 14-19 in Houston. The body’s 63rd Regular Convention did not speak on major social issues in its business, but it reaffirmed the practice of close(d) communion in its parishes and declared fellowship with the American Association of Lutheran Churches (a fellowship established in rejection of the ELCA). One major difference between their convention and ours is that President Bush saw fit to send a video message to theirs.
The General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) met in Fort Worth, Texas from July 21-25. It was the 21st such biannual meeting in the current incarnation of this branch of the Stone-Campbell American free-church movement (full disclosure: my wife, a Disciples pastor, was a delegate). The Assembly passed a firmly-stated resolution against the war in Iraq. The resolution repudiated the premises of the war and the authority under which it has been waged. It also instructed the church to support conscientious objectors within the military and to teach Just War theory to students in pastoral formation. The Assembly also went on the record in calling for the abolition of torture. For better or for worse, however, the Disciples did not feel the same need as the UCC or the SBC to define marriage, weigh in on global warming, or call society to a reckoning over its evils, whether sexual, economic, or environmental. This in part reflects a denomination that has not become as ideologically uniform as some others have.
The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church all had the summer off. Pity or envy them as you choose.