Some forty-five clergymen from a dozen states assembled in Washington early this month in an organized effort to communicate their views about what the U. S. government should be doing in Viet Nam. Although they stopped short of specific proposals, they voiced “uneasiness” about the growing crisis.
A larger group of clergymen scheduled a march to the Pentagon and a “silent vigil” there the following week.
Both groups disclaimed a pacifist consensus, but a call to the “vigil” committee headquarters elicited the “educated guess”—and transparent understatement—that the “vigil” participants were against the $700 million appropriation overwhelmingly passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives for United States involvement in Viet Nam. In general, the “vigil” participants were reported to favor more active efforts toward a negotiated settlement of the crisis.
The earlier group of forty-five, who called their gathering a “visitation,” were less specific—especially after an hour’s talk with Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. The Vice-President spelled out the administration’s position in what a group spokesman called “persuasive” terms, apparently changing the views of some of the clergymen.
Before the meeting with Humphrey, the consensus was reportedly against continued bombing of North Viet Nam.
Although the “visitation” was billed as an inter-faith project, with Protestant and Jewish clergymen participating, the rendezvous point was the Washington office of the National Council of Churches. Much of the spadework, moreover, was done by Dr. Vernon L. Ferwerda, NCC assistant general secretary in charge of the office.
Ferwerda minimized the pacifist orientation of the “visitation” participants. He labeled “simplistic” a recent petition of 2,700 clergymen virtually urging instant peace in Viet Nam.
The group visits by clergymen to Washington this month raise anew the question of the involvement of the institutional church in complex political and international affairs. Encouraged by the decisive role they are credited with playing in the civil rights bill lobby, many churchmen now are ready to step up their activities in Washington. The church lobby seems to be expanding substantially, and some congressmen and other government officials are reluctantly obliged to take it more seriously.
There are now more than a dozen church-related agencies with offices in Washington that are lobbying or information liaison centers. Although no two of them have the same goals, the agencies frequently reflect a solid front on specific issues. Thus Washington now finds itself with a religious coalition that represents collectively an ecclesiastical lobby of growing pressure and influence. Those who view this development with concern are often critical of its chief characteristic: a leftist tilt.
Traditionally the most formidable religious agency in the nation’s capital is the Roman Catholic Church. The closest thing to an American headquarters of the church is the National Catholic Welfare Conference, which is actually the American bishops’ administrative arm. The NCWC is housed in an attractive but modest ten-story building along Massachusetts Avenue.
Not far away are the offices of Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an expanding operation that disclosed plans last month for the erection of a new headquarters building at the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and Seventeenth Street.
Another expanding agency is the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. On August 1 the committee will begin a new program of study and research, and it is presently contemplating moving its offices nearer to the Capitol.
Considerable religious representation in Washington is already located in the Capitol Hill area, particularly around the Methodist Building. The NCC maintains its offices here, as do the United Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ.
Lutheran groups, including the public relations offices of the National Lutheran Council and the Missouri Synod, share space in the Lutheran Church Center on Sixteenth Street.
But the only religious agency that does not shy away from being called a lobby is the Friends Committee on National Legislation. This Quaker pacifist group has been traditionally identified with E. Raymond Wilson, who is still active in retirement. Wilson is regarded as the dean of religious lobbyists.
Although there has been much public concern over the impact of the religious and theological right wing, none of the religious groups identified with this viewpoint has Washington offices. The closest thing to a conservative voice is the National Association of Evangelicals’ public affairs offices. NAE lobbying is minimal and often is provoked by ecumenical church pressures for prejudicial positions.
The Moral Crisis
The so-called new morality now advocated by some modern churchmen is as yet far from being universally accepted by their fellows. A recent Time article (March 5) was cited by the Presbytery of Omaha last month in a petition to the forthcoming General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. In reporting a meeting of proponents of the new morality, Time had described their ethic as one “based on love rather than law, in which the ultimate criterion for right and wrong is not divine command but the individual’s subjective perception of what is good for himself and his neighbor in each given situation.”
In response to such views, the Omaha presbytery pointed to teaching in the Westminster Confession and catechisms that moral law is permanently binding upon the consciences of all Christians. They cited moral principles enunciated by Christ (Matt. 22:37–40; 5:8, 17–20, 28) and the Apostle Paul (Col. 3:5; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:1–5; Rom. 12:1, 2), and continued:
“Whereas: Any abuse of sexual intimacy outside the responsible bonds of Holy Matrimony destroys pure love, damaging marriage and causing guilty alienation from God, and
“Whereas: The public press has recently carried widespread news of churchmen advocating a moral relativism …, thereby excusing fornication by engaged couples as no sin, causing public scandal, encouraging license, and weakening the fabric of our free society;
“Therefore the Presbytery of Omaha …, asking the grace of God for our own weaknesses, reaffirms its adherence to our Church’s historic moral standards, affirming any sexual intercourse outside the bonds of Holy Matrimony to be a sin before our Holy God, damaging to fellowship with Him, and to personal character and spirituality, and requiring sincere prayer of contrition, repentance and forgiveness through Christ’s grace before full restoration to communion with God may be assured, and the Table of the Lord’s Supper approached with a good conscience.
“We respectfully petition our General Assembly to reaffirm its adherence to our Church’s historic moral standards in the interest of the purity of the Church.”
This month’s General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, is to consider a new confession of faith, which declares that in “each time and place there are problems and crises which call the church to act.” Singled out as particularly urgent modern crises are race, war, and poverty. Inasmuch as the new confession does speak to modern problems, some Presbyterians are disappointed that it does not speak to the moral crisis as represented in the sex revolution and the increase of crime. Attempts to redress the omission may be made in Columbus.
In the same week as the Omaha action, the Methodist Council of Bishops, meeting in Houston, spoke out vigorously on the crisis in morals:
“It has become incredibly easy for responsible people to rationalize away accepted standards of morality as unessential and irrelevant. Wanton acts of crime, drunkenness and sexual exploitation and abuse are flippantly tolerated and comfortably minimized as necessarily characteristic of a culture in transition. Basic rights like freedom of action and speech have been made into license for … filth. The people of Christ, through the Church, must speak meaningfully to the moral lostness of this age.”
God’S Word And Man’s Impressions
In the first-floor exhibit hall of its Bible House at Park Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan, the American Bible Society is using an eye-popping display of op art to show off modern Scripture formats.
The rationale, says a society official, is this: “Just as the artists of today are seeking new dimensions and a new outlook in their field, so the American Bible Society is constantly seeking bold, creative, colorful, and imaginative new formats and translations to lead more and more people, many hitherto unfamiliar or bored with the Scriptures, to search the Bible for God’s Word for this new age.” The society will mark its 150th anniversary next year.
At the center of the display is “Oeuil de Boeuf #2” by Claude Tousignant. A description says it “might convey the feeling expressing the words of the Prologue of John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning … the Word.’ The concentric circles emanating from a red center appear to give the sensation of creation from a focal point in time.”
Another picture features a cross and circle which are said to “convey the impression of a mature faith reached through suffering. Out of the darkness of the abyss comes a positive center which brings coherence from threatened chaos.”
A small red center in another is compared to the Sermon on the Mount: “It pulses its way toward vacuums and frontiers and by its power permeates the whole.”
In “Blue Law” by Paul Margin, “strictures and disabilities are overcome when a new pattern of lighted harmony breaks through.”
Society officials are believed to be considering the use of op art in cover illustrations for Bibles and Scripture portions. The society is rapidly expanding its distribution program in an effort to keep up with the exploding population and literacy rate.
To help to meet the challenge, churches are being encouraged to step up their investments in Scripture distribution. United States denominations have been increasing their financial contributions to the society, but not in proportion to the demand for Bibles. In fact, the denominational share of the society’s support has been decreasing steadily, from nearly 30 per cent in the 1940s to about 21 per cent in 1964. Denominational mergers have also resulted in financial cutbacks. Gifts from individuals have made up the difference.
The biggest share of the society’s financial burden is borne by the Assemblies of God, who contribute seventy-six cents per capita. Methodist and Southern Baptist contributions amount to about two cents per capita.
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