Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Where’s the Good News This Summer?
I haven’t seen much compelling news coming out of the world of religion lately. The Vatican did report that the Pope has opened a Twitter account and sent his first Tweet. Meanwhile, among his franchises in the United States there is great consternation about losing the fight over same gender marriage. Archbishop Timothy Dolan in New York sputtered on the radio about the dangers of government imposing draconian moral values on society, ridiculously likening us to various twentieth century totalitarian regimes. But even he seemed resigned to the inevitable extension of rights, lobbying instead to protect the church’s right to continue discrimination. (Has anyone ever sued the Roman Catholic Church for refusing to marry divorced persons?)
Why is it that we in the church seems so desperate to look trendy on the one hand, while on the other fiercely clinging to arcane fashions and outmoded conventions that increasingly make little sense to most people inside the church let alone outside? It’s going to take a lot more than a picture of an old man in papal regalia sending a tweet, or Protestant churches with their big screens and Facebook “friends” to persuade me that the church is facing the future with imagination and courage.
Meanwhile, the biennial Protestant summer rites of passage are underway. These assemblies can be wonderfully transforming experiences for participants. But their impact on the wider world is often pretty limited. There are notable exceptions of course, as when the UCC General Synod suspended its sessions and sent a delegation to support Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers in 1973, or when it supported divestment from South Africa in the 1980’s, or six years ago when it supported marriage equality long before public opinion had begun to shift significantly on this controversial issue. Synods and assemblies occasionally lead, taking bold and costly positions and prompting a public discussion that actually makes for change. But generally speaking there is the whiff of self-congratulation about these convention center revivals, and lately an almost desperate attempt to assert that the institutional future is rosy when, in fact, by most measurements it is not.
The UCC Synod did vote this week to streamline its governance structures, finally agreeing that governing a church in rapidly changing contexts though five huge boards of directors is hardly a responsible way to make wise, innovative mission decisions or to carefully steward income that is approaching one half of what it was when I started working in Cleveland less than twenty years ago. I began this conversation with my colleagues six years ago thinking it was urgent then; implementation will still take another two years! Lutherans and Disciples will no doubt have their own version of “fiddling while Rome burns” later this summer, just as the RCA and the Southern Baptists did earlier.
It’s not that there aren’t big things for the church to do. The New York Times had two articles this week about rising militarism in our country. Defense contractors are making obscene profits from the sale of arms overseas, dangerously destabilizing a world already oversaturated with weapons. And ROTC is making a big comeback on campuses, in part because it offers a career path not available elsewhere in this economy, but also because we have arrived at a point where we are far more likely to honor patriotic service in the military than the public spirit of teachers or the dedication of city and county workers. Later this summer one hopes that Obama and the Congress can cut a deal on the budget. As necessary as that is, it will surely be skewed toward the absurdly wealthy given current political realities and with the eyes of elected officials on sources of campaign contributions. A risk taking challenge of these disturbing realities is church news waiting to happen. Anyone interested? Tweet, tweet!
Lest you think I’ve grown cynical or grumpy, let me close with this: Thousands of congregations and pastors all over the country are making news – albeit quietly – doing the kinds of things faithful congregations do, and often they are supported and inspired by those very denominational structures we love to criticize. For example, when one of the local Catholic Charities in Illinois dropped its foster care program for fear that the vulnerable, often abandoned children it placed would come under the dangerous influence of same gender loving couples united under Illinois’ new civil union laws, the leader of another agency swallowed hard and then stepped in to take on the entire staff and caseload, ensuring a seamless continuation of service. It seems that his decision was shaped in significant measure by a faith nurtured in his local UCC congregation that has embodied the values of inclusion, equality, and compassion urged upon it over the years by the words of several General Synods.
Don’t look for me to be reading tweets from the Vatican, but I suspect I’ll follow the news of the next few noisy and not so solemn assemblies this summer. The chasm between those events and much of church life can seem enormous. But every now and then a connection is made, faith is deepened and transformed, and like children finding a home, good news is made.
John H. Thomas