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Unity in PoliticsNational Council of Churches General Assembly Still Looking to Political SolutionsJeff WaltonNovember 13, 2009
In the opening prayer of her keynote address to the National Council of Churches (NCC) and Church World Service (CWS) General Assembly, the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer spoke directly.
“Holy God, you came to us as incarnate word, and through the words of the Christ you prayed that we all might be one even as you are one,” the professor of New Testament prayed before the representatives of 28 denominations. “Now as we gather seeking to be faithful to your call, empower this assembly with your Spirit that we might hear and know and act on what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
Gathering for its 2009 General Assembly in Minneapolis November 10-12, the ecumenical body seemed to hear confirmation of its current path: a group of theologically and socially disparate churches bound together by advocacy for liberal political causes.
Aymer, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, received a standing ovation for her teaching on the assembly’s theme, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.…”
“We have hope not because we know how to fix what is broken,” Aymer said, “but because we know one who does.”
Despite Aymer’s statement, the ecumenical body seemed to know exactly what was broken and how to fix it. NCC General Secretary Michael Kinnamon said that the council’s work would focus on eco-justice, immigration, and health care reform. Its preferred solutions were federal policies that are on the legislative agenda of the current Congress.
But the NCC does not portray itself as a political lobby. “We gather not as a left wing body, a right wing body, but as a gospel-based body,” said Kinnamon in his report to the assembly. Kinnamon, who was elected the NCC’s chief executive in 2007, has demonstrated a different leadership style than his predecessor, former General Secretary Bob Edgar. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister has sought to convey that the staff at the New York-headquartered office of the NCC is not itself the council, but that the NCC is a covenant that the member communions have entered into with one another.
“Ecumenism, I fear, often remains an add-on to our ministry,” Kinnamon said, referring to the 35 Protestant mainline, Orthodox, and historically African American churches that form the NCC’s membership. Those member communions, who Kinnamon acknowledged are “increasingly squeezed” by diminishing membership and difficult finances, cannot cover the work of the council in its entirety. As a result, Kinnamon has overseen the hiring of a development officer and hopes to solicit support directly from individuals within the member churches as well as foundations outside of them.
In this last respect, Kinnamon seems to be continuing the strategy of Edgar, who substantially increased the council’s support from secular foundations. At first, the strategy stabilized the council’s precarious decline early in the decade. But when the economy soured, the foundation funding dried up: over a dozen positions were eliminated in a frantic effort to bring spending under control. The council, which once had over 100 staff, was left with less than 30. With a pared-down staff roster, the NCC has had to focus work more tightly within its five program commissions.
“Past problems with administration seem to be overcome,” Kinnamon said, trumpeting the NCC’s clean letter from a recently completed audit. Still, the council ran a deficit this past year and revenue continues on a downward, if less steep, trajectory.
If the NCC has tightened its budget, the Justice and Advocacy Commission continues to receive the largest share of revenues. Even during difficult times, political pronouncements about health care and immigration have been at the forefront of the council’s work.
Delegates heard a presentation from the immigration working group, in which Jen Smyers, Associate for Immigration and Refugee Policy of CWS, outlined the status of proposed legislation. She measured various bills against the council’s goals of loosened immigration policy with a pathway to legal status and eventual citizenship for immigrants who have entered or remained in the country illegally.
Smyers, who referred to the current immigration system as “inhumane,” strongly endorsed H.R. 1751, the DREAM Act, which would provide an amnesty to immigrant students who entered the United States illegally as children. Also endorsed was H.R.2709, the Reuniting Familes Act, which would give greater priority to extended family members of current immigrants to obtain visas to join them in this country. Smyers warned against H.R.3308, the SAVE Act, which would provide for stronger border security and stricter verification of employees’ immigration status. All of the bills are sponsored by Democratic members of Congress.
Smyers’ update included a website – www.interfaithimmigration.org – that the Interfaith Immigration Coalition is promoting to advance liberalized immigration policies. A postcard advocacy campaign is also underway, and prayer vigils are planned during the council’s Ecumenical Advocacy Days next March 19-22 in Washington, D.C.
David Leslie, director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, who introduced Smyers’ presentation, highlighted how the NCC immigration working group was now cooperating with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The evangelical association recently adopted a resolution and gave congressional testimony in favor of a liberalized U.S. immigration policy.
Like Leslie, Christian Churches Together (CCT) executive Richard Hamm referred to the traditionally more conservative NAE as a partner in the faith community alongside the more liberal ecumenical bodies. In his greetings to the General Assembly, Hamm explained that “today’s NAE is not the NAE of Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.” The CCT official may not have been aware that neither Falwell nor Robertson ever had any high-level involvement with the NAE. But apparently the two religious right leaders—one deceased and the other in eclipse—seemed to fit the pejorative NCC stereotype of conservative evangelicals.
Immigration reform was also the focus of a separate workshop featured at the General Assembly. Led by United Church of Christ clergy, the workshop advised attendees on how to oppose the detention of illegal immigrants and how to work with local detention centers. During the presentation, one of the ministers expressed concerns about organized opposition to immigration amnesty proposals, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the conservative “tea party” movement, which protests against rising government spending and taxation. The Rev. Loren McGrail of the UCC Coordinating Committee for Immigration labeled FAIR and the tea party activists as “hate groups,” comparing them to a group of four neo-Nazis that recently protested at the Minnesota state capitol in St. Paul.
“A disaster for Christianity”
The NCC, which advocates for a government-dominated health care system, seemed pleased with the recent passage of health care legislation in the House of Representatives.
“This is the first time in the history of the United States that we have the possibility to pass health care,” said retiring NCC President Archbishop Vicken Aykazian of the Armenian Orthodox Church. “If it fails, it is a disaster for Christianity.”
A statement adopted by the General Assembly, entitled “Time is of the Essence: The Urgency of Health Care Reform,” echoed Aykazian’s anxious tone. The statement asserted that “the nation has come to a moment of reckoning with the health care crises,” seeming to imply that any legislation would be better than none.
“…we must forge the national will for reform into a consensus building process to ensure the enactment of landmark legislation which will bring hope and promise to the peoples of this land,” the statement read. The words aimed for a utopian ideal, calling to “ensure that the sick and infirm are made well” and that “the blessings of life might be truly national in scope.”
The NCC statement lifted up federal government entitlement programs—the children’s health insurance program, Medicaid, and Medicare—as the “successes of the past.” It said nothing about successes engendered by private enterprise, such as the remarkable advances achieved by America’s world-leading pharmaceutical industry. Elsewhere, the resolution seemed to forget about the Medicaid program that it praised. It claimed that the Americans most at risk of lacking health care coverage are the “poorest of the poor”—even though those individuals already qualify for the Medicaid program.
The statement also referenced “46 million Americans without access to health care,” implying that all uninsured individuals lack access to medical treatment.
In addition to statements about health care and immigration, the NCC adopted resolutions on mountaintop mining in West Virginia and nuclear disarmament, the latter of which was cleared by the council’s governing board at their September meeting. To read about that resolution, click here. NCC officials decided to temporarily shelve a gun violence resolution, scheduling it instead for their spring governing board meeting.
Changes at the NCC
The General Assembly marked the conclusion of the term of Archbishop Aykazian as president. Aykazian is succeeded by the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, executive of the Minnesota Council of Churches and the first Moravian to lead the national ecumenical body. Filling Chemberlin’s previous role as president elect is Kathryn M. Lohre, assistant director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University and an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America representative to the World Council of Churches Central Committee. Lohre, now 32, will be the second youngest president in the council’s history when she assumes the office in 2012.
The 2009 General Assembly included the controversial seating of the first new member denomination in the council since 2002. The Florida-based Apostolic Christian Church (ACC), a branch of the Old Catholic Church, was ultimately received, but not before concerns were raised about the church’s size. The ACC has a dozen organized congregations and as many clergy, but it also reports having 43 house churches and a membership of 10,000. The NCC threshold for membership is 20,000 members and at least 50 congregations. Some delegates questioned why this rule was in place if it was not going to be followed in the case of the ACC.
Concerns were also raised about the lack of information distributed in advance to delegates about the denomination applying for membership. One Orthodox delegate wondered whether the ACC was Trinitarian, which the ACC observer insisted that it was. After an hour of discussion, the General Assembly went into closed session for a final hour of debate and voting. NCC staff remarked that this was the first time in memory that the General Assembly had gone into closed session for any reason.
The ACC now becomes the 36th member communion of the NCC, a membership number that the NCC has not held since the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America left the council in 2005.
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