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Caught Between the Cross and the Comma: UCC Denomination Addresses Identity

c. 2005 Religion News Service (UNDATED) The glitzy “God is Still Speaking” ad campaign by the United Church of Christ features a giant black comma with a quote from comedian Gracie Allen _ “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” Some conservatives, however, worry that a punctuation mark has pushed aside the […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The glitzy “God is Still Speaking” ad campaign by the United Church of Christ features a giant black comma with a quote from comedian Gracie Allen _ “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Some conservatives, however, worry that a punctuation mark has pushed aside the UCC’s traditional logo _ with its prominent cross and crown of Jesus Christ _ and with it, the church’s Christian identity.

As UCC delegates gather in Atlanta this weekend (July 1-5) for the church’s General Synod meeting, they will consider a resolution to reassert the UCC’s 1957 “Cross Triumphant” logo as the “central symbol” for its 1.3 million members.

On this and other issues, the UCC seems to be wrestling with its core identity, torn between its Puritan roots and its reputation as the proud left pole of American Protestantism. To put it another way, the church is caught between the cross and the comma.

“We believe the long-term future of our 6,000 churches lies with returning to the Christian center,” said the Rev. David Runnion-Bareford, pastor of the Congregational Church in Candia, N.H., and a leader of the church’s small conservative wing. “They (UCC leaders) think they are the cutting edge in Christian history, but we think it’s a detour.”

The identity struggle is not unique to the UCC, which like other mainline churches has been steadily losing members for decades. Some liberal traditions, such as the Unitarians, are debating how much they should talk about God. Even Reform Jews are struggling to recover tradition without betraying their liberal DNA.

For the UCC, the fight isn’t simply about the ad campaign, but a larger question of its Christian character. Another pending resolution urges the church to declare itself “a decidedly Christian denomination” and would require pastors to affirm “Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” It also bemoans the UCC’s reputation as “Unitarians Considering Christ.”

And even though the UCC allows the blessing of gay unions, a vocal minority is opposing a push for the church to endorse civil marriage for gay couples. The same minority also wants to keep the UCC from joining a church-based movement to divest from Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.

The Rev. John Thomas, the UCC general minister and president, said all these issues reflect a sense that church members are “being tugged in two directions,” wrestling between historic Christian ideals on one hand and an open, affirming liberalism on the other.

While Thomas said the ad campaign dispute is a “helpful reminder” for the church to better assert its Christian identity, he rejected the idea that the church had drifted from its theological moorings.

“I know there are folks in the UCC who worry we’re veering towards a social liberal humanism without much faith content, but I’d contest that,” he said in a telephone interview from his Cleveland office. “I don’t think that’s quite accurate.”

Much of the “Still Speaking” material is undeniably Christian.

“If you think getting up on Sunday morning is hard, try rising from the dead,” says one sticker. Another asks, “If Jesus embraced lepers, prostitutes and convicts, shouldn’t we?”

While the black comma figures prominently on all material, most of it also includes the UCC’s traditional “Cross Triumphant” logo that Runnion-Bareford says has been sidelined. That was a deliberate choice, said campaign director Ron Buford.

“I’ve become the logo police in this church,” Buford said. “There is nothing that comes out of the `Still Speaking’ initiative that doesn’t have the logo on it. The logo is more in use today, now more than ever.”

Buford said the campaign has increased visibility and donations _ a decision by NBC and CBS to reject a UCC television ad as “too controversial” only provided free publicity. Four in 10 congregations have signed on to the campaign, and a quarter of a million visitors to the UCC Web site have entered a ZIP code to find a local church, Buford said.

“People are hearing the good news and they’re finding a refuge,” he said. “For those of us who believe in a resurrected Christ in the world, this is the resurrected Christ in action.”

(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

One observer of U.S. Protestant churches saw two dynamics at play in the UCC. Diana Butler Bass, a senior researcher at Virginia Theological Seminary and director of a two-year study of U.S. congregations, said the UCC shares an “identity crisis” with political liberals who are trying to find their way in the 21st century.

But she worried about conservatives’ attempts in the UCC and other churches to centralize authority, discipline and doctrinal standards, especially in the UCC where local congregations relish their autonomy. Such a move violates “the democratic impulses of American Protestantism,” she said.

“These denominations are so closely tied to the practice of democracy in this country,” she said. “If they lose that kind of local meeting-house democratic impulse, it makes me wonder what’s going on in the larger culture.”

When voting delegates have their say, the resolutions may gain little traction. Either way, Runnion-Bareford agreed that the stakes are high, and not just for the UCC.

“If they are permitted to reshape the theological heritage of the Puritans and pietists, that has tremendous implications for the United States,” said Runnion-Bareford, director of the conservative Biblical Witness Fellowship group in the church.

“They own a piece of our heritage, and if they can redefine that heritage, that has implications for all of us.”

MO/PH END ECKSTROM

Editors: Search the RNS photo Web site at https://religionnews.com for photos depicting the UCC ad campaign. Also see related item in today’s digest, RNS-DIGEST-JUNE29.

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