The General Board of the National Council of Churches at its meeting last month in New York approved a sweeping reorganization of the NCC to go into effect in January. According to council officials, the new bylaws serve both to centralize and coordinate governmental structure and to stress that the council’s authority is derived from its member bodies. They are also said to provide needed organizational flexibility.
Changes include the following:
—The current “confederation of parallel units” (divisions, general departments, and central departments) is regrouped into four divisions: Christian Life and Mission, Christian Education, Overseas Ministries, and Christian Unity.
—Considerable attention was given to the new Division of Christian Life and Mission, which will incorporate the present Division of Christian Life and Work, the Department of Evangelism, the Division of Home Missions, the Department of Worship and the Arts, and the Department of Stewardship and Benevolence.
—Under the heading “Constituent Representation,” a paragraph was added to the bylaws to make it clear that each communion is its own interpreter of the meaning of its membership.
—Membership requirements are spelled out for the first time. The first requirement (which contains the chief theological emphasis) is that, to be eligible, a church body “shall have a basis of association on which the communion exists as a Christian body.”
—Direct voting representation of the communions has been increased from 100 to 216, and a category of thirty-five members of the board nominated from within the council structure has been eliminated.
The list of new bylaws had been prepared two months prior to the meeting, but the board members had not had prior opportunity to read five mimeographed pages of amendments introduced from the floor. This part of the meeting resembled a two-man newscast, with William H. Rhoads of the revision committee taking the board members through the bylaws proper, and Dr. Edwin Tuller, who introduced the amendments for the policy and strategy committee, signing in periodically from a microphone on the floor with late developments.
One or two delegates rose to complain that they did not know the significance of the amendments. During later discussion, another board member noted that in the proposed superstructure the Department of Evangelism would be a commission (a subsidiary unit). Still another suggested that if consolidation was going to go as far as the present plan called for, the council might as well consolidate everything into one division.
In general, however, the bylaws and the amendments were approved with little comment from the floor. The significance of the reorganization had been interpreted earlier by Dr. R. H. Edwin Espy, the general secretary.
In other business, the council approved with little discussion an official “pronouncement” recommending “further experimentation with, and continuing evaluation of, dual school enrollment for classroom instruction.” The plan, also known as “shared time,” would enroll schoolchildren simultaneously in church-related and secular schools. The council’s statement emphasized the benefits of the plan for “those who, for conscience sake, maintain separate schools.”
Some educators look to the plan as a practical approach to the issues accentuated by the Supreme Court rulings on prayer and Bible reading in the schools, though reservations have been expressed about the compartmentalization of the school curriculum into “sacred” and “secular” subjects. Communities in thirty-five states are now trying out some form of dual enrollment.
Also approved at the board meeting was a resolution on “Jewish-Christian Relations” urging further dialogue and stressing that the events surrounding the Crucifixion should not be used to “fasten upon the Jewish people of today responsibilities which belong to our corporate humanity.”
The Division of Home Missions presented a report on the “Delta Ministry,” an antipoverty and social-redevelopment campaign for the Mississippi delta area officially scheduled to begin in September. The “ministry” is to be carried out by the council on a non-discriminatory basis and consequently has already run into some opposition. One aspect questioned in some quarters is the support and aid of the World Council of Churches for the project—already asked for and granted. It is, however, fully endorsed by the General Board. The focal point in each county is to be an indigenous community center for education, training and communication.One Southern board member rose to plead that the project leaders “coordinate what is done with the local people.… We don’t want a march of professionals into the Delta.” The Rev. Paul R. Madsen, chairman of the sponsoring Division of Home Missions, replied that Mississippians were on the national advisory committee.
The board adopted a resolution calling for a “special emphasis on peace during the triennium 1963–1966.” It also urged that every effort be made to “realize the full potential of the Church Center for the United Nations,” that priority be given the special emphasis, and that adequate funds be made available for the necessary staffing and program.
The Long Hot Summer
Last May a minister from the Midwest went to Canton, Mississippi, to stand by as a “moral presence” during a voter-registration drive. A policeman asked him to identify himself. “I’m with the National Council of Churches,” he said. The policeman reacted with obscene language and roughed up the minister with the butt of a rifle.
This incident, reported last month at the National Council’s General Board meeting, was a kind of overture to the “long hot summer” the NCC Commission on Religion and Race sees ahead. Its policy is nonviolence, but the chairman, Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, believes that tire civil rights movement, in which the commission is wholeheartedly engaged, will bring violence with it, and he is undeterred by its implications.
This summer more than 1,000 students are expected to aid in voter registration in Mississippi. Civil rights groups in the state are doing the recruiting, and the National Council is providing orientation and training. It has also enlisted the aid of lawyers and ministers, who will act in an advisory capacity and serve as a “moral presence” during registration drives.
It would be hard to name a National Council project that has aroused Southern anger as this one has. The Commission on Religion and Race was commended for its work by the General Board this month (Dr. Blake said that he was not aware of any negative votes cast); but many Southerners, among them those who would call themselves moderates on the civil rights issue, regard the voter-recruiting program as an invasion and resent the National Council’s involvement in it and other projects. For example, it was reported at the NCC board meeting this month that some churches were striking from their budget the fund for the council’s Delta Ministry (see “Updating the NCC Superstructure,” p. 33). Some persons wonder why the council is pushing a civil rights program in Mississippi but says nothing about acts of crime and racial violence that have occurred in subways a hundred yards away from its New York headquarters. Dr. Blake says that the council’s activities on behalf of racial justice are pursued in the North just as vigorously as in the South.
The Commission on Religion and Race points out that it did not recruit the students but that it does want to influence the movement for the good. It sponsored a training program for the volunteers to be held during the second half of June at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. The commission is cooperating with the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which coordinates the work of the major civil rights organizations in Mississippi and is recruiting the students for the voter-registration drive.
The General Board reviewed the commission’s first year of operation last month, commended it, and recommended “no change in the mandate.” It suggested that the commission strive for “effective interpretation” to the public and stress the ministry of reconciliation. It also commended the commission’s “thoughtful” approach to the question of obedience to law and encouraged it to “continue study of the issue.”
The wording of the last item gave the barest hint of a question mark. The commission has on occasion acted in violation of various local ordinances in behalf of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights. And the legal question could very well arise again this ssummer, for it was reported that the Mississippi legislature has prepared laws to deal with the registration drives. “People say, ‘Why are you going to stir things up in Mississippi?’ ” said Dr. Blake. “Things are stirred up. We want to make things possibly peaceful, and possibly successful.”
Dealing With Geography
The 294 delegates to the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, meeting in Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania, last month, found that the roughest section of the rocky road to church union was the section within their own borders. Recommendations that had been proposed by a joint committee of the RCA and the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. and had been adopted by the Presbyterian U. S. General Assembly without any discussion precipitated a long and tortuous debate within the General Synod of the 378,000-member RCA.
Although the church sings, “In Christ there is no east or west,” the debate on church union revealed that the Reformed Church in America does have its east and west, at least in the minds of its members, who either constantly affirm it or constantly deny it. Yet on the last full day of its synodical gathering, the RCA inched toward closer association with the so-called Southern Presbyterians. It was a long, tumultuous session, lasting from 9 A.M. until 1 A.M. the next day. The session was marked by theological debate, sharp criticisms, heavy emotionalism, personal confessions of both faith and error, parliamentary snarls, stalling tactics, circumventing motions, and moments of confusion, frustration, and levity. At the call for adjournment, some devout voice cried, “Praise the Lord.”
There were seventeen overtures concerning church union and merger. Three called for a crash program that would move toward speedy union with Southern Presbyterians, and two called for a decision to cease and desist from all church-union conversations. Adjudication of these and the adoption of a theological statement, “The Witness of the Reformed Churches,” elicited a warm debate fired by a sentence in the theological statement that asserted, “We begin with the simple admission that in a real sense we have nothing distinctive to say and we rejoice in this admission.” Intended as an assertion that the RCA is not a sectarian church but one grounded in the universal, catholic, Christian tradition, the sentence challenged delegates to assert the RCA’s distinctiveness, something most delegates found, not in the witness of the church, but in the quality of the piety and service that the tradition nourishes. Only after this matter was clarified to the satisfaction of the delegates did they adopt the eleven recommendations of their joint committee that proposed various united explorative actions with Southern Presbyterians.
The synod also reaffirmed its decision of 1962 “to take steps looking toward merger with the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. and to hold other union possibilities in abeyance.” The last part of this decision was the 1964 synod’s answer to the suggestion of Southern Presbyterians that union discussions be widened to include the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. Many delegates expressed fear that union with Southern Presbyterians would soon involve them in possible union with the 3.3 million United Presbyterians.
On that same day—which must have seemed to some delegates “the longest day”—the synod: rejected by a 167–114 vote a proposal that would have permitted women to be ordained to church offices; called for voluntary abstinence from smoking, and for “understanding” toward those caught in the habit; approved a statement that social dancing is good or evil depending upon the participants and the circumstances; reaffirmed an earlier endorsement of integrated housing and encouraged its membership to end racial discrimination and “to maintain active contact with Councils on Human Relationships and similar organizations which are active for this purpose in various local situations”; rejected a floor motion to support the Becker amendment and sent it to a committee for study; and reaffirmed its 1962 decision urging its membership to “stubbornly resist” attempts to remove religion from public schools.
If the ecumenical discussions of the 1964 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America revealed something of the church’s own “east and west,” they also revealed that theological vitality, respect for biblical teaching, and deep spiritual concern are the church’s overriding and unitive characteristics. The oldest church in America with continuous service and worship is made up of descendants of some of the first to set foot on American soil as well as latter-day Dutch emigrants. Under its president, Dr. Verne Oggel of Glen Rock, New Jersey, it revealed that it still has enough theological concern to view ecumenical matters from a theological perspective. It refused to go open throttle down the ecumenical road without some assurance about where the road leads. It isn’t at all sure it wants to go north by going south.
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