Celebrating a Liberal Denomination

Galatians 3:23-29, John 17: 18-23

Rev. Doug Van Doren


As we gather here this morning, the 50th General Synod of the United Church of Christ is meeting in Hartford, Connecticut. Present there to do the work of the national church is a diverse mixture of delegates from the 39 Conferences of the United Church of Christ as well as National Staff, Conference Staff, guests, and numerous visitors. The work of the General Synod is to oversee the work of the national setting of the denomination and to act on the budget, elect officers, and to speak through pronouncements and resolutions to the local church and to the world. I happily take this 50th anniversary of the United Church of Christ to celebrate this liberal denomination.

The United Church of Christ is structured from the bottom up, with a great deal of freedom and autonomy in the local church. In this denomination, people don't just follow along rather; they contend with each other and decide together in democratic fashion. Isn't it interesting that this type of church is the most liberal of the major Christian denominations! One might think instead that such a structure would lead to a "lowest common denominator" approach where nothing "controversial" would be dealt with.

Maybe it is, however, that when people think for themselves, when they listen to one another and have a personal responsibility to discern and act on God's word, they hear the beckoning of the liberal Spirit of God. Maybe it is that when institutional concerns take a back seat, the liberal spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, moves us in marvelous and diverse ways.

There is no clear definition of "liberal." The use of the word fell out of favor when used derisively by Ronald Reagan. (And see what disastrous consequences that had!) We are a liberal church and ought to be proud of it and reclaim the title. I think that "liberal" in the church context means that:

1)   We are on the side of the Christian divide that resonates more with the Biblical/theological statement that humans are "created in the image of God" than it does with the notion that we are "fallen from grace." Not only does this give us a more positive sense of self, but also of other individuals and of humanity overall.

2)   We resonate with God's liberating activity among humankind. This liberating activity is seen clearly from Moses through the prophets to Jesus. Our God is tuned to the cries of the marginalized and the oppressed.

3)   The liberal church does not see the role of religion solely to save us from the world or to conserve and protect the revelation of God as we see it. Rather it is to continue to seek the revelation of God for our time in whatever accent it might come.

4)   We believe that this world, not the next, was the primary focus of Jesus' ministry and is the focus of the Holy Spirit. This world, then, ought to reflect God's just and peaceable realm.

5)   A liberal church seeks to look beyond division, for we take Paul's revelation seriously, that there is "neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female..."

It appears to me that the heart of a liberal Christian is a heart that trusts God and therefore is secure enough to share liberally. It is secure enough to truly seek another's ideas and perspective rather than being threatened by them, because it knows that the Spirit moves in all kinds of ways. At its best, it is willing to entertain the notion that God really is bigger than we are!

Isn't it interesting that this denomination that is most open to the world, that is least threatened by society and culture, has and continues to be one of society's strongest critics. We often stand against the structures and practices of society that diminish many of God's people. The plain truth is that so much of human-built society is not just, is not peaceable, and does not reflect God's realm. What else can faithful people do? This willingness to stand with the marginalized, to stand against societal practice and assumptions has led to some remarkable and faithful "firsts" in our denomination and its predecessors.

-     The Pilgrim Movement itself is a "first" in many regards. When they set sail for the new world seeking spiritual freedom, they came without a clergy person. (No wonder they survived!) Their Pastor John Robinson sent them off with what is a truly radical statement. He said, "Do not stay where Calvin and Luther left you, for I am certain that there is more truth and light yet to break forth from God's Holy Word." That is a radical statement for some even today. Today, too many people act like the Bible is God and our goal is to somehow find the magic formula or hidden meaning, rather than to be led by the testimony of our Biblical forebears into our own encounter with the Holy.

-     The democratic form of governance of our Pilgrim forebears was largely a first. No, it did not include everyone. That inclusion would be a while in coming. Yet it was radical to believe that common folks, not just the elite, actually had the right to be heard and the ability to have a role in determining their future! Probably not since the early church, at least in European society, had such a thing been done. All one has to do is look at the political and economic landscape today to wonder if we are moving backward.

-     This budding understanding of the equality and ability of all people led to a very early stance among many of the early Congregationalists against slavery- some 100 years before it became a widespread movement.

-     This liberating spirit meant a loyalty on the part of our Congregational forebears to the Colonists rather than to the Crown. So it was that at the Old South Church Meeting Hall the kick-off for the Boston Tea Party took place. (We have been in good historic company when the groups going to protest in Washington D.C. and in Lansing have rallied here prior to leaving.)

-     In 1773, some 90 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Phyllis Wheatley, a slave woman and member of Old South Congregation in Boston, with the encouragement and support of fellow church members, became the first published African American author in the U.S. with her Poems on Various Subjects. It was a national sensation.

-     We tend to think of our New England roots in relation to the struggle for independence, but the German Reformed side of our Evangelical and Reformed roots was well-established at that time in Pennsylvania. During the Revolutionary War, the British occupied Philadelphia and sought to melt down the Liberty Bell to manufacture cannons. In what must have been an act of treason, the pastor and people of Old Zion Reformed Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania hid the Liberty Bell under the floorboards of the church until after the war.

-     Our Congregational predecessors ordained Lemuel Hayes in 1785. He was the first African American person ordained by a Protestant denomination.

 -    Our Congregational forebears also stood at the center of the liberation struggle for the Mendi people of the Amistad. The Congregational Churches played a primary role in the campaign to free them to return to Africa. They pursued their case all the way to the Supreme Court where it was successfully argued by Congregationalist John Quincy Adams.

- This also led to the first anti-slavery society, the American Missionary Association in 1846, which had multiracial leadership from its inception.

-     The first united church in U.S. history took place out of the German Evangelical roots of our United Church of Christ. Two groups with Lutheran and Reformed roots came together to form one church. (This union overcame a dispute that had raged for centuries as to the "proper" understanding of Communion.) Truly they lived out the motto that came to be associated with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, and in all things charity."

-     The first woman since New Testament times was ordained by a Congregational Church in 1853, Antoinette Brown. She was, perhaps, the first woman in history to be elected to serve a congregation as their pastor.

-     Also out of our history, near the end of the 19th Century, came the leading proponents of the Social Gospel movement. They called upon the church to denounce injustice to, and exploitation of, the poor. The cities were teeming with poor people, while the church was only interested in spiritual escape.

-     Through our Evangelical and Reformed forebears came some of the most important theologians of the 20th Century, Paul Tillich, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Reinhold Nieburh. It was Reinhold who gave us the Serenity Prayer:


          "God, give me the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed;

Courage to change the things that should be changed, and

          The wisdom to distinguish the difference."