LAST MONTH, FOR THE first time in years, a member denomination withdrew from the National Council of Churches (NCC). The spunky, 400,000-member communion is the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, and its decision to quit the reflexively left-wing NCC was based on a unanimous vote of clergy and lay delegates.
According to one church spokesman, a recent NCC fundraising letter helped spark the departure. It asked supporters to fight "right-wing attacks" on the controversial church agency. The letter named President Bush, Rush Limbaugh, James Dobson, and the Heritage Foundation as insidious forces that must be opposed.
"It got to be too much," Antiochian spokesman Rev. Thomas Zain told Ecumenical News International. The NCC, said Zain, has "lost its goal of Christian unity on a doctrinal basis. The goal seems to be including everybody and [promoting] niceties."
Homosexuality, increasingly the bellwether issue that divides religious traditionalists from liberals, was also a big factor for the Antiochians. The Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ, both pillars of the NCC, have largely accepted same-sex unions and openly gay clergy.
Officially, the NCC does not have a stance on homosexuality. But NCC chief Bob Edgar, a former Demo-cratic congressman and liberal Methodist seminary president, leaves little doubt that he favors same-sex unions. "We just feel we don't have much in common with the churches" in the NCC, said Rev. Zain on behalf of the Antiochians.
Historically comprising mostly Syrian-American Christians, the Antiochians have in recent years attracted a number of Protestant converts impressed by the history and mysticism of Eastern Orthodoxy. These newcomers are especially anxious not to follow the liberal path of mainline denominations.
The NCC's preference for liberal politics, and its indifference to Christian doctrine, have made it unappealing to the Eastern Orthodox for some time. Mainline Protestants founded and dominate the 55-year-old NCC. The Orthodox originally saw the group as an avenue for integrating their ethnic communions into America's religious mainstream. But the mainline is no longer mainstream. Only about a quarter of America's church members belong to NCC denominations now, as Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians shrink in numbers, and conservative churches grow.
The NCC's relations with its own more conservative churches have been increasingly cool for several years. When the NCC nearly went bankrupt in the late 1990s, the wealthy Orthodox churches--the Russian, Greek, Serbian, and Ukrainian, along with other Eastern communions like the Armenians and Copts--declined to come to the rescue in any significant way. Although NCC members from nearly the beginning (the Antiochians were a founding NCC member), the Orthodox churches provide almost no funding to the NCC. Most of its denominational support comes from United Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians.
The mainline Protestants bailed out the NCC and installed Edgar as the new general secretary six years ago, hoping he could work fundraising magic. Although the NCC's income has fallen from over $10 million to $6 million, Edgar erased the deficit-spending that was choking the NCC.
Aware that the denominations would provide no more financial rescues, Edgar changed the NCC's system of financial support. Instead of depending on the churches, the NCC is increasingly funded by left-wing philanthropies, like the Tides Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and political advocacy groups, like the Sierra Club and MoveOn.org.
From the start, Edgar also stressed outreach to non-NCC constituencies, such as Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals, groups that, unlike the NCC churches, are actually growing. But the outreach stumbled five years ago when Edgar quickly withdrew his signature from an ecumenical "Christian Marriage Declaration," which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and which was endorsed by the Roman Catholic bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals.
Under pressure from the NCC's gay caucus, Edgar explained, "I support more than marriage the love between two people, and I don't differentiate whether it is between a man and a woman or a woman and a woman or a man and a man or whatever."
Edgar's backflip on marriage was not forgotten by the Eastern Orthodox and was among the reasons for the Antiochian decision. The delegates cheered as the hierarch of the church, Metropolitan Philip Saliba, announced withdrawal from the NCC.
"It's the liberalization of the mainline Protestant denominations over the last several years," explained the Antiochian interfaith affairs spokesman Rev. Olof Scott to a radio interviewer. "Their agendas are driven by gay issues, the radical feminist agenda, same-sex marriage. They compromise so much. Our voice has been totally lost."
Scott complained that the NCC under Bob Edgar has adopted a "politicized agenda" that "we feel should not be part of the proclamation of the church." Edgar's "liberal-left agenda" doesn't appeal to "people who live in flyover country who are conservative Christians," noted Scott, who called the NCC's latest fundraising letter the "straw that broke the camel's back." The letter, although sent to churches, says little about Christianity and a lot about fighting the "right."
With the NCC increasingly reliant on liberal foundations and direct-mail campaigns for funding, Edgar is unlikely to let up on the shrill political rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Antiochian withdrawal could have a ripple effect on other Orthodox churches in the NCC.
The 1 million-member Orthodox Church in America (Russian Orthodox) convened its All American Council last month in Toronto, where it received a proposal to withdraw from the NCC. "The very politically-oriented theologies of many Protestant denominations have often threatened to derail the agenda of the councils away from dialogue and unity, and towards political advocacy and activism," said the report from the church's ecumenical affairs committee. Bishops of the church will deliberate over the proposal this fall.
"We don't need the NCC," the Antiochian Church's Rev. Scott told a radio interviewer. "We are strong. We are vibrant. We are growing." That is considerably more than Bob Edgar can say about the troubled NCC and its declining mainline members.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.