The Reverend Wright Controversy Draws Attention to the United Church of Christ

The UCC leadership, embracing controversy, welcomes debate over its liberal stands.

Barack Obama at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Mason City, Iowa.

Barack Obama at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Mason City, Iowa.

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In that period, the UCC also began to incorporate more black churches into the denomination. Minorities today make up about 10 percent of the membership, and predominantly black Trinity is the single largest congregation in the denomination. With prominent clergy and members like the outspoken Yale chaplain and pastor of New York's Riverside Church, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, and NAACP leader Julian Bond, the UCC moved on to embrace other progressive causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War, legal abortion, and gay and lesbian rights. In the mid-1980s, the church adopted its "Open and Affirming" program, by which congregations could choose to identify themselves as welcoming people of all sexual orientations. Recently, the nation's largest gay and lesbian congregation, the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, affiliated with the UCC.

But the UCC also contains strongly conservative elements, including those who embrace traditional Congregationalism's own rather austere Puritan theology. The Calvinist and Lutheran teachings of the Reformed and Evangelical traditions are still strongly rooted in congregations founded in Pennsylvania by German and Swiss immigrants and in the Midwest by later waves of Germans. While the Evangelical and Reformed traditions also include a commitment to social ministry and even a largely liberal political outlook, they hew to Christian orthodoxy.

Dissidents. But while studies have shown that more church members describe themselves as moderate than as either liberal or conservative, the church's strongest critics charge that moderates and conservatives are being ignored, and even shunned, by an ultraliberal leadership. A fifth-generation pastor from the German Evangelical tradition, the Rev. Mark Friz is the leader of St. Paul's Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Mo., one of the congregations that have left the UCC since the early 1960s. His congregation voted to disaffiliate in 1998, disenchanted, he says, by the larger church's lack of tolerance for a real diversity and by its fuzzy theology. "I would go to conferences," says Friz, "and hear many pastors saying that they didn't believe that Jesus rose from the grave."

His bigger grievance, though, was with the way the national leadership refused to recognize conservative voices, even organizing the selection process for the General Synods in a way that he believes left conservatives underrepresented. "Whenever the General Synod met," Friz says, "we all held our breath in fear they'd do something radical, as they did in 2005." In that year, the General Synod not only affirmed gay marriage but also encouraged the use of economic leverage (including selective divestments) on companies profiting from the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Those pronouncements encouraged the biggest congregational exodus of congregations since the Sixties and Seventies, with more than 200 churches breaking away.

But UCC leaders see nothing novel in taking controversial positions. "The UCC throughout its history has been willing to take a risk and push the issues," says Thomas. He admits that embracing "prophetic" voices and positions like those of Wright has led to defections. But Thomas also thinks those positions, including ones conveyed in the branding campaign, have made the church more confident of what it is. "I think three years after 2005, we're pretty stable." And, indeed, 85 churches have joined in that period.

At the same time, Thomas insists that no position has ever been forced on all parts of the church by the leadership. Indeed, fewer than 1,000 of the church's some 5,500 congregations have signed on to the "Open and Affirming" program.

Whether an unabashedly progressive church can become a growing part of the American religious landscape is still an open question. "They may become the refuge for liberals from all sorts of denominations, " says University of California-San Diego sociologist John Evans, though he sees no evidence that the UCC's liberal branding campaign has worked. In the meantime, just as leaders of evangelical churches tend to be more politically conservative than most people in their pews, so the leaders of the UCC will probably continue to be to the left of most of their flocks. And that may only contribute to the view, particularly among many younger Christians who are leaving both mainline and evangelical churches, that overly ideological leadership is one of the weaknesses of contemporary institutional Christianity.