Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Freely Bound

Peg F. is Keystone's liturgist and a United Church of Christ member in discernment. In her paper, "Freely Bound" she shares her understanding of the core of our denomination, it's roots, and it's distinctive features as it looks to the future. Check it out, it's a great way to become more familiar with Keystone's wider community.

"Freely Bound"

The general characteristics, Spirit, or ethos of the United Church of Christ can be summed up in one word: covenant. The spirit of covenant permeates everything about the UCC, including its theological and political perspectives throughout its history, its organizational structure, its relationship to the world through mission, and its experience of God within the “beloved community,” which the “Statement of Faith” names as “people of all ages, tongues, and races.”

The theological roots of the United Church of Christ are firmly planted in the biblical history of covenant, a binding contract between God and God’s people. The evolution of covenant can be found within the Hebrew Scriptures. The Noahic covenant was an unconditional promise from God to Noah, whereby God will never again destroy Earth with a flood. The sign of the covenant was the rainbow (Gen. 9:8-17). Through the Abrahamic covenant, God promised Abram and his descendants the land from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates (Gen 15:18), and descendents too numerous to count (Gen 22:17). The sign of this covenant was circumcision, making this a conditional covenant by placing responsibility on Abraham and his descendents (Gen 17:11).

When God gave the Law to Moses, the relationship between God and the chosen people changed forever. The people now must obey the law in order to receive continued blessing. However, the initial choice to do so was made freely and communally. Thus, they were freely bound, a concept important to the ethos of the UCC. This time, not only did the people pledge to God, but also to each other. The covenant now involved a commitment to relationship among the community, as well as to God. The story continued as Jesus renewed the covenant by blessing the wine on the night he was betrayed, saying, “This is the cup of my blood, the new and everlasting covenant.” As Christians, when drinking of the cup, we are reminded that we are in covenant with each other.

Covenant language disappeared with the theology of the early church, but resurfaced with John Calvin. Calvin’s understanding of covenant related to grace. From the very beginning, humanity “violated” the covenant of “works,” and God’s grace was the only thing that kept humanity in covenant. Therefore, Calvin contended, the “covenant of grace” did not begin with Christ, as many Christians thought, but existed with God from the beginning of human history (Walker 136).

At this point, covenantal history became intertwined with the history of the colonies developing in North America. The English “Separatists,” after having attempted to reform the Anglican Church in the Netherlands, decided that the church was too corrupt for reform. Later known as the “Pilgrims,” they sailed on the Mayflower to Plymouth, totally separating themselves from the church. The Puritans set out to “purify” the Anglican Church, and came to America a decade later to position themselves as a “City upon a hill.” The “Holy Experiment” that ensued at Massachusetts Bay brought John Calvin’s theology of covenant into the Puritan way of living, using scripture as a guide not only for one’s personal life, but as a way of living to be embraced on a political level (Theology and Identity 3-5).

Covenantal language evolved into the "Cambridge Platform" of 1648, the document that Charles Hambrick-Hambrick-Stowe calls the "Magna Carta of Democracy." Its words call for an order of society in which church and state “may both stand together and flourish, the one being helpful unto the other in their distinct and due administrations." This bold statement was resisted by a number of laity, who feared giving any power to the political realm. Yet, documents such as the “Cambridge Platform” show that the history of our nation is a religious history, and that the roots of the UCC are grounded in the same ideals that formed our democracy (“A Company of Believers”).

Covenant continued to be emphasized by the congregational churches that began with the Pilgrims and Puritans, and covenantal relationships are still important to the UCC today, although they are sometimes difficult to maintain. One of the tensions that exists between the spirit of congregationalism and the ideal of covenantal relationships is within the portion of UCC polity that calls for autonomy. Reuben A. Sheares suggests that UCC polity can be “described as a ‘covenanted relationship of autonomous units of church life.’” These autonomous units are within a larger web of units, or expressions, that compose the UCC, and are described in the Constitution and Bylaws, which Sheares depicts as a “covenant within the covenant.” He portrays it as such because it “delineates the relationship between autonomous units of church life, even as it regulates the General Synod and those instrumentalities relating to it.” Most importantly, the document reveals the covenant between the members of the Body of Christ “within” God’s covenant (Theology and Identity 72-75).

It is important to note that the UCC holds Jesus Christ as the “sole head” of the Body of Christ (“Preamble to the Constitution,” par. 2). Therefore, the various expressions within the UCC that are in covenantal relationship are not hierarchical, although they are within an organized structure. The General Synod is the representative body of the UCC, meets biennially, and is led by an elected General Minister. The expressions contained in the UCC are the local churches (congregations) that are components of the associations that comprise the local conferences, each led by a Conference Minister. Some conferences, such as the Pacific Northwest Conference, do not have associations within their structure. All decisions are made “in consultation and collaboration” among the expressions (Article III).

Within the UCC’s structure are “Covenanted Ministries” which carry out the work of the church locally, globally, ecumenically and through interfaith relationships.” The UCC is “an inclusive, multiracial, multicultural church, accessible to all, engaging in ministries of justice, witness, healing, teaching, and preaching.” The four ministries are “Office of General Ministries, Local Church Ministries, Wider Church Ministries, and Justice and Witness Ministries” (Article X). The instrumentalities are the boards and commissions that function within the various expressions.

The Constitution of the UCC declares that “each expression of the church has responsibilities and rights in relation to the others” (Article III, par. 6). Yet, the Local Church (Congregation) is the basic unit and life of the UCC. It is empowered to manage its “own affairs,” and “formulates its own covenants and confessions of faith” (Article IV. par. 18). In other words, each expression has its own set of responsibilities, and each recognizes those responsibilities, while honoring their place among the others. Each expression of the UCC structure is freely bound to the other.

The very fact that each local church is empowered to form its own confession of faith demonstrates how difficult it is to define a specific theology or set of beliefs held by the UCC as a whole. This difficulty is compounded by the ecumenical nature of the church. Congregationalism, stemming from the Pilgrims and Puritans, is only one of four “streams” that comprise the current United Church of Christ. The UCC is also comprised of “evangelical,” “reformed,” and “christian” movements.

The Christian tradition is the only one of the four that originated on the American frontier. Like the Congregationalists, the Christian Church embraced autonomy. Both denominations hailed freedom of religious expression and united in 1931 to become the Congregational Christian Churches. In 1934, the evangelical and reformed churches, rooted in the German and Swiss movements within the Protestant Reformation, joined to form one denomination. The union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches became the United Church of Christ in 1957.

The evangelical background, with Martin Luther as its source, brought to the fore rich discussions of grace and justification by faith that influenced Protestant theology for centuries. Martin Luther struggled tremendously in his life because he never felt as though he could ever do enough to earn God's grace and to merit eternal life. He felt enslaved by the laws of the Catholic Church. In Luther’s attempt to reform the Church, he wanted others to experience the freedom he found once he gained insight into St. Paul's theology of justification by faith through grace.

Paul’s theology can be translated into covenantal language. Basically, God created us and will love us always. We do not earn God’s love, nor do we need to work for it. The love and mercy that God bestows on us is "grace." Because we know (have faith or belief) that we are loved and graced by God, we respond by walking with God and living in love with God and with each other. Grace transforms us so that we no longer need laws to tell us how to walk with God and each other. We walk in covenantal love, which for Paul, is a fulfillment and true heart of the law. It is when we do not walk with God and each other that we are in a state of sin, or separation. Thus, grace and covenant are closely linked. For Luther, the Christian is the free-est--bound to no one but God--and is also the one most bound to others in love and duty.

The Reformed tradition contributed the theologies of John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, including that of covenant and Eucharist. Ulrich Zwingli said that "believers bring Christ to the supper in their hearts; they do not receive him in the supper." The focus is on the community and how they commit themselves to discipleship, and transubstantiation occurs within the worshipping community (Lindberg190). Zwingli's arguments were based on John 6:63, that by virtue of Christ's ascension, it is the Spirit that gives life and not the flesh (Lindberg 185).

Eucharist is one of two sacraments embraced by the UCC. Our current theology states that through the ritual of Holy Communion, the church celebrates the presence of Christ in the community, through which it is transformed. Frequency and manner of the ritual is decided on a local church level (Balaam 74-76). In most UCC congregations the table is open to all, for the radical abundance of God’s feast is for all to share. When we come to the table regularly, we are reminded of the covenant with God and with all Christians.

The second sacrament vital to the covenantal nature of the UCC is Baptism, which, through community ritual, welcomes a new member into covenantal relationship. Baptism, by immersion, sprinkling, or pouring, is a “central celebration” of unity in the church community. When a child is involved, the child’s family, including the church family, gathers to promise to nurture the child’s faith and union with Christ. Later in life, one can acknowledge for oneself a commitment to the body of Christ through Confirmation, or through a ritual celebrating membership.

It is important to re-emphasize that the autonomous nature of each local church makes it impossible to state that there is one specific formula of ritualizing that is standard. It is also virtually impossible to define a theology that is standard in every congregation, although there is a general non-fundamentalist attitude among UCC members. A progressive theology put forth by David Hambrick-Stowe sheds some light on this diverse ecclesial community’s understanding of its relationship with the world and its Creator (Theology and Identity 103-115).

Hambrick-Stowe emphasizes that the world and we who live in it, undergo a “beautiful, infinitely complex and mysterious change process,” and that this is intrinsically related to the Creator. Hambrick-Stowe illustrates that our God is a living God that “creates and responds to the whole universe in all its parts” infinitely and intimately. God is relational, and this relationship is symbolized in the Trinity, whereby God is not only in infinite relationships, but the essence of God is “intrinsically…eternally and essentially relational.” This relational aspect of God considers the importance of the entire cosmos, and how critical it is that a human centered traditional theology is augmented by an ecological theology that includes the precious world in which we live.

Hambrick-Stowe embraces the concept of “panentheism,” which suggests that “all is in God.” The underlying force of all that is in God is love. Through Jesus, who embodied that love, humanity is shown how the power of love can overcome evil, and that pain and suffering can be redeemed into “the larger harmonies and more creative adventures” that God continually has in store for God’s creation. His theology implies the covenantal nature of a community of faith. Furthermore, a community that embodies full relationship as shown by Jesus, is led directly into the church’s mission, which embraces human beings in all faiths and cultures, and reaches out in actions that promote justice and liberation.

Beatrice Wood, who was involved with the United Church Board for World Ministries, illustrates the UCC theology of mission (Theology and Identity 125-127). She indicates that our denomination, as one that strives for unity, needs to include in its understanding of mission those contributions made by people outside of our denomination, culture, and the borders of our nation. Furthermore, the best approach to mission work is no longer of a proselytizing nature, which, unfortunately, violated the nature of various cultures. Rather, it calls for a “participatory” model, whereby established mission churches work together with agencies to determine how our efforts together best reflect God’s vision of justice and peace. The pluralistic nature of the UCC invites opportunities for all to learn from each other’s theologies and cultures, including, but not limited to, those in our own country.

Wood equates the words “salvation” and “liberation.” Liberation theology includes diverse ways in which people express their theologies. Rooted in the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt, the word now carries with it “the freeing message of the Christian gospel,” which calls all people to recognize that salvation is not for a time after death, where suffering and oppression are no longer, but the liberating message of the gospel is for right here and now. It involves not only a transformation into a new way of living peace and justice, but calls humanity to political action to bring it about. North Americans need to be aware that liberation theology challenges the very system of power within which the culture is embedded.

The UCC is absorbed in social consciousness, often at the cost of spiritual development. Many Protestants are strangers to traditional practices of piety and mysticism expressed in Roman Catholicism. Bengt Hoffman suggests that “the intellectual structures have prevailed over the inward aspect” that was so evident in Martin Luther’s monastic life (Maas 148). The Calvinist vision of the “City upon a Hill” truncated mystical inclinations with its focus on leading an exemplary life as modeled by Jesus. The deeply mystical side of Jesus himself has been de-emphasized.

Today, fewer people are stepping into a church building, claiming to be “more spiritual than religious.” Instead, they seek spiritual practices outside the doors of mainline Protestant churches. It is my experience that the UCC is among those churches that emphasize the intellectual forum and social reform rather than deep spirituality. Spiritual practices outside of a personal prayer routine and corporate worship might be rediscovered through ecumenical or interreligious connections, including practices evident in Catholic models, such as Ignatian spirituality.

It is spiritually critical to feed the congregation with corporate worship that embodies the movement of the Spirit. The weekly gatherings of the beloved community are the lifeline of the local church to its members and to the wider community. We gather for praise, we sing and dance, we remember that ours is a compassionate God, we recall our baptisms, we reflect upon the Word, we state our faith, we share joys and concerns, we offer gifts, and we share in the Bread of Life and Cup of Covenant. We are blessed and summoned to serve outside the doors of the building in which we gather. That ritual is vitally important to our basic human needs. When it embodies “full, conscious, and active participation,” the worship experience is richer and more Spiritfilled.

Also decided at a local church level is the use of the “Revised Common Lectionary” for corporate worship. The lectionary links the UCC to all of its brothers and sisters in Christ who share a common word. The scriptures, once hailed by the Protestant reformers as the sole authority of the church, are now embraced by the UCC as the words of a God who is still speaking.

The celebration of the liturgical seasons link us to universal truths through which humanity can fully explore and understand the deaths and resurrections of life which make up the human condition. We are globally bound through these cycles of the planet, and that realization demands that we seek covenant with all people and work to renew our commitment to the health of Earth.

The United Church of Christ is considered to be a progressive and liberal member of mainstream Protestantism, if not the most liberal and progressive member. This identity holds within it a responsibility to be a prophetic voice to a world that seeks unity. The denomination’s motto, “That we all may be one,” and the “God is still speaking” advertising campaign sum up the desire of this denomination to embrace its ethos of covenantal relationship. At the same time, the UCC’s balance of autonomy with covenant acknowledges that Christianity is a living and breathing entity through which the Spirit of God flows throughout and within every time and place.

Works Cited
-Bodin, Jan, Ted Braun and Tom Warren, eds. Balaam’s Unofficial Handbook of the
United Church of Christ. Cleveland: United Church Press, 2008.
-Hambrick-Stowe, Charles, and Daniel L. Johnson, eds. Theology and Identity: Traditions, Movements and Polity in the United Church of Christ. Cleveland: United Church Press, 2007.
-Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E. "'A Company of Believers Ecclesiastically Confederate' :
The Message of the Cambridge Platform." Bulletin of the Congregational Library at
-Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing,
-Maas, Robin and Gabriel O’Donnell, O.P., eds. Spiritual Traditions for the
Contemporary Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990.
-Walker, Randi. The Evolution of a UCC Style: Essays in the History, Ecclesiology, and Culture of the United Church of Christ. Cleveland: United Church Press, 2005.
2005 Edition of the UCC Constitution and Bylaws

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