EPISCOPALIANS often get tarred as America's most liberal Christian denomination. But there is a more liberal one! (Hint: it's the one Howard Dean joined after he quit the Episcopal Church in a dispute over a bike trail.)
And it's nearly as old, too. Episcopalians can trace their history in America back to Jamestown in 1607, but the United Church of Christ's antecedents date to the Puritans who arrived in New England only a couple decades later.
It's been a roller coaster of a ride across the centuries for the United Church of Christ, from gun-toting Calvinists to super-PC gay "marriage" proponents. The l.2 million member United Church of Christ (UCC) became the first major Christian denomination in America officially to endorse same-sex nuptials, when its General Synod met from July 1 to July 5 in Atlanta.
While they were at it, the General Synod also targeted Israel for sanctions (forgetting, among so much else, the philo-Semitism of its Puritan forbears) and opposed Israel's new security wall. And for good measure, it opposed privatization of Social Security, opposed President Bush's 2006 budget proposal, urged the United States to support the International War Crimes Tribunal, and advised Bush to nominate a "moderate" Supreme Court justice.
The UCC didn't say yes to every proposal, mind you. It rejected a resolution defining marriage as the union of man and woman. And the UCC decided to remain Christian! It voted to affirm its continued belief in Christ and to retain a cross on its official logo.
THE UCC ATTRACTED MAJOR MEDIA ATTENTION late last year with its controversial television ads featuring bouncers outside a church turning away racial minorities, the disabled, and a same-sex couple. The implication was that the UCC, unlike other churches, was inclusive and tolerant.
But despite the UCC's boasts of inclusiveness, it has lost nearly one million members since 1960. It lost another 30,000 last year alone. The ongoing membership hemorrhage notwithstanding, the UCC's president recently celebrated his denomination's "extravagant hospitality" and "evangelical courage."
As part of that hospitality, the UCC's "marriage equality" resolution urges legal recognition of same-sex couples as married and encourages local churches to bless homosexual unions as marriages. Among major denominations, only the Episcopal Church, having elected its first openly homosexual bishop two years ago, comes close to the UCC's pro-homosexuality stance. Like the UCC, the Episcopal Church is also fast declining in membership.
REGARDING ISRAEL, the UCC General Synod held back from directly endorsing an immediate divestment of church funds in firms doing business with Israel. But the final resolution on "economic leverage" to promote Middle East peace called upon church agencies to consider "divesting from those companies that refuse to change their practices of gain from the perpetuation of violence, including the Occupation" of Palestinian land by Israel.
The UCC similarly voted to oppose Israel's security wall, which guards against Palestinian terrorism, because parts of the wall are inside the West Bank. There were no suggestions from the UCC as to how Israel might better defend itself. Nor did the UCC suggest divestment targeted at any other nations except for Israel. UCC President John H. Thomas explained, "Our vision is of a shared future for Israel and Palestine, symbolized by the sharing of the city and holy sites of Jerusalem as a capital for both states."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the resolutions "functionally anti-Semitic." Cooper said, "To single out Israel as a human-rights abuser while turning a blind eye to actual abuse in tyrannical regimes around the world is not only delusional, but smacks of an anti-Jewish attitude."
Another Jewish leader responded similarly to the UCC's anti-wall resolution: "We understand Christian concerns about a wall, but we believe that saving human lives is more significant than property," said Neil Goldstein of the American Jewish Congress. "That wall has saved the lives of Jews, Christians, and Muslims."
The pro-gay marriage resolution required less discussion and negotiation than the anti-Israel statements. It passed overwhelmingly, with "only a whimper of opposition," in the words of an official UCC news release. "On this July Fourth the General Synod of the United Church of Christ has acted courageously to declare freedom," rejoiced UCC President Thomas afterwards.
Before voting on same-sex marriage, the delegates were addressed by former Atlanta mayor, United Nations ambassador, and UCC pastor Andrew Young. "I'd be disappointed if we did not approve this resolution," Young said. "I think it would be consistent with our historic spirit of fairness and justice. But it also would be consistent with the spirit of grace and mercy as the path to peace and that you judge not that you not be judged."
No doubt, Young also agreed with the UCC's quick reaction to Sandra Day O'Connor's resignation from the Supreme Court. The General Synod commended her "moderating influence" on the court and urged "bi-partisan" consultation between Bush and the U.S. Senate.
With such statements in mind, Thomas noted that the UCC "has sometimes engendered cruel hostility and mean spirited attacks" for its provocative political stances. Nevertheless, he said the denomination would not be deterred. Setting the example, Thomas denounced the U.S. war in Iraq as "an unholy war of deceptions and shame, a war that continues to destroy, demean and abuse."
In a fitting conclusion to the UCC event, children's cartoon character SpongeBob Square Pants made a surprise visit. As a UCC news release explained, "SpongeBob and the UCC share something in common. They have both been accused by right-wing critics of endorsing a gay lifestyle."
Earlier this year, conservative and gay groups sparred over SpongeBob, who holds hands with a starfish and appeared in a commercial touting "diversity." Bouncers from the UCC TV spot appeared on the stage with SpongeBob, who took their arms and chirpily suggested, "Let's go find a UCC church." Such fun! It was the perfect conclusion for the UCC. Pretend bouncers, escorting an children's cartoon character, to increasingly empty "inclusive" UCC local churches.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.