Clueless: The Courtships of the NCC
Church News from Washington
by Mark Tooley
Religious pluralism and relations with non-Christian religions was a major theme of the National Council of Churches (NCC) annual General Assembly meeting in Washington, D.C. on November 13–15, 1997. “Our traditions and realities differ,” observed Margaret Thomas of the NCC’s Commission on Interfaith Relations. “We must ask who is not at the table.”
The growth of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and other non-Christian minorities in the United States should be greeted not with alarm but with acceptance, urged NCC speakers. Harvard professor Diana Eck, a United Methodist laywoman active with the World Council of Churches, led the assembly in discussion about moving from “conflict to partnership” with other religions.
“The one we call God is ours, whether we are Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus,” said Eck, who urged interfaith cooperation on issues involving the environment, economic justice, and urban renewal. “We have a multicultural America,” she announced while claiming that Muslims in the United States now outnumber Episcopalians. (According to the NCC’s own Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, there are 500,000 American Muslims and 2.5 million Episcopalians.)
“I enjoy the multiplicities of religious expression,” enthused Eck. “Christianity alone cannot provide a comprehensive way of living in the U.S.” She insisted she was not advocating “relativism” but “conversation,” so that many faiths could “water the roots of our society.”
Newly installed NCC President Craig Anderson, an Episcopal bishop, said the NCC’s relaxed attitude to other religions had prevented more cooperation with Evangelicals, who stressed the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. “Evangelicals have been concerned about the NCC’s openness to addressing God by different names and liturgies,” Anderson recognized.
But he said there are now growing relations with groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). “They came to us to apologize for not cooperating earlier,” Anderson related at a press conference. “Don Argue [NAE president] has come to us wanting to talk.”
Responding to Anderson’s remarks, Argue said there has never been an NAE apology to the NCC. “The comments of Bishop Anderson unfortunately reinforce the deep differences between evangelicals, who hold a high view of biblical authority, and those who do not.” Argue said that one reason for the NAE’s growth was the “erosion of the traditional view of biblical inspiration” within NCC denominations. “A Christian faith that does not accept the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures is spiritually bankrupt,” said Argue.
Another potential source of tension between the NCC and Evangelicals is homosexuality. Anderson predicted eventual acceptance by the NCC of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Churches, a denomination of mostly homosexual clergy and laity. “I would personally like to see full acceptance,” said Anderson. “We don’t have much clarity by excluding folks.”
Prior to the General Assembly meeting, the NCC’s executive board gave preliminary approval to a new policy prohibiting discrimination based upon sexual orientation within its own hiring practices. Such a proposal had been declined last year by the board, after oblique objections from board members Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America and Dan Weiss of the American Baptist Church.
In a written testimony provided by NCC special counsel Oliver Thomas to a U.S. Senate committee shortly before the General Assembly, the NCC endorsed the Equal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would add sexual orientation to gender and race as categories that are legally protected against workplace discrimination.
But Not Persecuted Christians
Worldwide persecution of Christians was another issue that, like homosexuality, could stifle expanded cooperation with Evangelicals. The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church that Evangelicals touted so widely received a chilly reception from the NCC. The chief of the NCC’s public policy arm called the Prayer Day and the campaign behind it “deceptive.”
“There is a political agenda hidden under the prayer day,” warned Albert Pennybacker. “We don’t think prayers are for that.” He was distressed that the campaign centered upon Christians. He and the other NCC leaders favor a more generic day of prayer for all persons martyred for their faith.
In general, NCC speakers questioned whether there truly is a global persecution of Christians. Instead, they speculated that violence and oppression against churches were often fueled by political, ethnic, or cultural considerations. Victor Hsu of the NCC’s office for East Asia said the Chinese government was motivated by a genuine concern for public order when it acted against the house churches. He said the government-supported China Christian Council fostered an admirable “unity of worship.”
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“Clueless: The Courtships of the NCC” first appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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