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NCC Delegates Question Council's Political Focus

John Lomperis

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Responding to criticisms of the National Council of Churches' (NCC) liberal political activism, NCC General Secretary Robert Edgar has defiantly announced that the council's leadership is committed to "standing up and speaking out when others have told us to sit down and be silent."

But now the criticism is coming from within the council itself. Delegates at the latest NCC General Assembly openly questioned the ecumenical body's focus on political activism and the ways in which that activism has been expressed. African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Earl McCloud asserted that leaders of NCC member communions "ought to be consulted before positions are taken [by the NCC] on certain issues." McCloud was challenging the NCC staff's frequent practice of unilaterally taking political positions.

The delegates, who were meeting November 8-10 near Baltimore, Maryland, were aware that the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese had quit the NCC earlier this year - in part because of the council's liberal political stances. The Antiochians were particularly upset about a June NCC fundraising letter that had a very partisan political tone.

Delegate after delegate passionately denounced a newly proposed NCC vision statement. They complained that the statement focused on what they said was the "secondary" concern of "peace and justice," instead of the primary concern of building unity in Christ. "We should be speaking with the vision of the church and not a political agenda!" declared Greek Orthodox delegate Eve Tibbs. A Disciples of Christ delegate worried that the vision statement failed to distinguish the NCC "from a generic liberal social action group." He asserted that "it's arrogant" for the NCC churches "to tell the nation what to do" before they first "seek peace and justice among ourselves." A United Church of Christ delegate fretted that a politicized NCC vision would make it harder to bring additional churches into the council.

As negative responses from the delegates mounted, Father Demetri Kantzavelos, a Greek Orthodox delegate, announced that he "want[ed] it entered in the record" that he was quite "dismayed" at the absence of Edgar and other NCC officers from the session. The other delegates erupted in applause to express their shared frustration. Current NCC President Thomas Hoyt appeared to explain that the officers were in a special meeting.

Former NCC President Leonid Kishkovsky discussed the recent departure of the Antiochians from the NCC. He reported that, after being lobbied by General Secretary Edgar, the bishops of his own (Russian background) Orthodox Church in America had decided not to follow the Antiochians "for now." Leaders of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America were taking the same cautious attitude.

Kishkovsky attributed the Antiochian withdrawal to "profound anxieties" among Eastern Orthodox over "the nature of their ecumenical involvement." He also noted the existence of "articulate groups" within Eastern Orthodox churches that push for withdrawal from all ecumenical councils. Kishkovsky briefly alluded to the Antiochians' displeasure with the pro-homosexuality stances of some NCC denominations. But he failed to mention the Antiochians' reactions against the NCC's political agenda and its June fundraising letter.

Despite the concerns of the delegates and the departure of the Antiochians, NCC leaders demonstrated no interest in shifting the council's focus away from political activism. Banners hung in the meeting rooms depicting anti-war protesters. Peg Chemberlin, who chairs the council's committee on "Ecumenical Networks," pointed to the AARP's effectiveness as a political lobby group as a good model for the NCC to imitate. In the service installing the Rev. Michael Livingston as the new NCC president, the central message of the sermon was that "faith is a political thing" and that the council should "make some noise!"

Edgar celebrated the NCC's activism against the Iraq war. He plugged the council's "Faithful America" website, which he had earlier described as "MoveOn.org for the faith community." The general secretary boasted of joining other religious left figures in lobbying against Republican attempts to slow the growth of federal government programs. Other NCC officials reported enthusiastically on the council's support for the controversial Kyoto global climate accords, its participation with Senator Ted Kennedy in a press conference advocating a raise in the minimum wage, and its co-sponsorship of the annual "Ecumenical Advocacy Days" conference for liberal political activists.

NCC General Assembly delegates hastily passed a lengthy resolution expressing alarm over curtailments of civil liberties under the USA Patriot Act. The resolution connected these concerns about the Patriot Act to an alleged "creeping reliance on selective religious fundamentalism as the lens for shaping public policy."

Another General Assembly resolution declared, "We find it particularly abhorrent that our nation's lawmakers would fail to approve the pending legislation disavowing the use of torture by any entity on behalf of the United States government." The NCC resolution maintained: "Torture, regardless of circumstance, humiliates and debases torturer and tortured alike. Torture turns its face against the biblical truth that all humans are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26, 27)."

A Coptic Orthodox delegate had complained that the original draft of the resolution did not condemn torture perpetrated by non-U.S. entities, such as the Iraqi insurgents. The final version made moral arguments that would apply universally; however, the United States was still the only country specifically faulted for complicity in torture. The resolution failed to note the prevalent use of torture by many other governments around the world-a fact which strengthens the imperative for the U.S. government to set an example of humane treatment of enemy combatants.

At the NCC Women's Caucus luncheon, United Methodist Women's Division official Lois Dauway described "the ecumenical movement" as being opposed to "the religious right." Dauway celebrated the participation of the United Methodist Women's Division in the pro-abortion rights "March for Women's Lives" in 2004, in which she said other NCC General Assembly participants had joined.

But the General Assembly did make at least one unusual move in apparent response to the urging of Eastern Orthodox delegates. It adopted a resolution condemning Muslim extremist violence against Christians in Egypt and Turkey. In the past, the NCC has typically avoided criticism of Islamic and Marxist regimes. Almost three weeks after the Baltimore General Assembly meeting, the NCC website has yet to report on the resolution about Egypt and Turkey.

Eight of the NCC's 35 member communions did not to send a representative to the NCC assembly. It was reported that NCC income from member denominations was lower than the council had anticipated at this point in its fiscal year.

It was also reported that the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee had recently contributed $20,000 to the council. The Unitarians do not belong to the NCC, because they could not affirm the council's original stated purpose as "a community of Christian communions, which, in response to the gospel as revealed in the Scriptures, confess Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, as Savior and Lord." But - unlike the Antiochians, who would still affirm that stated purpose - the Unitarians appear to be satisfied with the NCC's current direction. Their gift of $20,000 would rank them among the top dozen denominations supporting the council, exceeding the contributions of two-thirds of the denominations that do belong to the NCC.

NCC staffer Tony Kireopoulos reported that the council was widely disseminating its new "Christian Curriculum on International Relations." This document was described at the September NCC Governing Board meeting as an attempt to educate grassroots members of NCC-affiliated churches into having political views more in line with those of NCC leaders. Production of this NCC curriculum was funded by the secular and generally liberal-leaning Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Tides Foundation.

NCC Governing Board members received a brief report on actions that member communions had taken to exert "economic leverage" against Israel "as a tool to promote peace." The report made no specific recommendation for NCC action at this time. Former Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) moderator Fahed Abu-Akel, a champion of his denomination's plans to divest from selected corporations doing business with Israel, made a motion to have the NCC "invite member communions to examine their investment portfolio." The denominations would be asked to determine if they held stock in companies complicit in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, or in terrorism from any source. But most of Abu-Akel's fellow NCC board members were not ready to enter the divestment controversy that has engulfed the PCUSA, and they defeated his motion.

Read the entire article on the Institute for Religion and Democracy website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of The Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Posted: 04-Dec-05

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