Magazine article The Christian Century

The Procedural Church: At the UCC Synod

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Procedural Church: At the UCC Synod

Article excerpt

In his book Democracy's Discontent Michael Sandel describes the U.S. today as a "procedural republic." Both Democrats and Republicans, Sandel argues, have adopted the idea that government should be neutral on matters of large moral purpose and meaning. We are dedicated to ensuring rights, but have no compelling shared vision or moral purpose. We have rights, rules and procedures, but to what end?

The term "procedural republic" occurred to me often during the General Synod of the United Church of Christ held in Columbus, Ohio, in early July. Coalitions, rules, rights and procedures were the order of the duty as the General Synod considered as its major business items a Report on Restructure of the UCC and the Formula of Agreement between the UCC and the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

The restructure of the church collapsed the array of "instrumentalities" (including the Board for Homeland Ministries and the Board for World Ministries) and "commissions" into four new "covenanted" ministries -- General Ministries, Local Church, Wider Church, and Justice and Witness. Given the potential for turf struggles, the ease with which the Report on Restructure and the necessary changes to the church constitution were approved came as a surprise to many. Did the delegates simply trust the process or were they largely indifferent?

Church renewal guru Robert Easum showed up long enough to comment, "I hate to deliver the bad news, but churches that put their energy into restructuring are planning their death. Working at shaping the committee and managing the committee cannot save us. What we need to start talking about is jesus, who is the only thing that can make a difference." The even harder, and in this setting more important, task may be to talk about Jesus and the structures and realities of church life, to talk about what the business of the church has to do with the life of jesus Christ. But in the procedural church it is exactly this kind of substantive theological discussion that seems a difficult and forgotten skill.

On Sunday morning the General Synod paid extended attention to race and cultural differences in an effort to further realize a commitment made at the 1993 Synod to become a "multiracial, multicultural church." San Francisco therapist and documentary filmmaker Lee Mun Wah discussed race and racism before the Synod viewed his work The Color of Fear, which itself is a discussion among men of different races and cultures about race in America today.

While not without value, this exercise signaled the deeper problem facing the UCC and similar, established denominations. Issues of race and culture were approached through the lens and in the language of contemporary secular culture. That language, mostly psychotherapeutic, and not the language of the New Testament, set the terms of the discussion. There was no suggestion that the church, in struggling to be multicultural and multiracial, might find guidance as well as challenge in the Book of Acts or Paul's letters to the Romans or the Galatians. At a time when religious interest is high and when the spiritual ideals of the Christian faith seem ascendent in so many quarters, established churches like the UCC seem unable or unwilling to speak that language or to be motivated by the faith they claim. Slogans substitute for theology.

The preacher for the Synod's closing worship, ELCA pastor Barbara Lundblad, picked up on this issue. …

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