Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Report from United Church of Christ US General Synod

By Adam Webber

I recently spent five days in Tampa, staffing the exhibit for Earlham School of Religion at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ.  The UCC's Synod is held once every two years, in different locations around the country, for learning, for business, and for worship.  There were three thousand people in attendance.  My little booth was one of nearly a hundred in the exhibit hall, including sixteen other educational institutions. 

Many Conversations

Few of the people who stopped to talk with me knew anything about ESR.  A quick sampling of my interactions:

  • A woman researching M.Div. programs for her husband.  Her: "I can't picture my husband moving us to Indiana."  Me: "It's not as bad as it sounds."
  • "Can I have a pen?  I have a friend who's a graduate."
  • "Is that Quaker?"
  • A long talk with a young man who seemed interested and took all the flyers.
  • Several people asking about occasional courses -- not seeking another degree, but seeking interesting classes for continuing education.
  • A long talk with a 60-something African-American guy, who told me about an enslaved ancestor who was taught to read by Quakers.  I described modern Quaker diversity, and he had many questions.
  • Several people looking for D.Min programs -- sorry.
  • An Earlham College graduate, touching base.
  • "Is that like Amish?"
  • A UCC pastor who wondered if there were hard feelings at ESR against the UCC on account our faith ancestors' persecutions of Quakers.  (He mentioned Mary Dyer specifically.)
  • A guy who said he was too old for seminary -- I tried to convince him he wasn't.
  • Good questions from a guy who's unsure of his calling.  He wanted to take a few classes -- wanted Greek and Hebrew -- was intrigued about the Access program.
  • "I'm a Quaker, and I've been planning on taking some online courses."
  • A navy chaplain, with whom I had an interesting conversation about the peace witness and military chaplaincy.
  • A Quaker who is a licensed minister in the UCC.
  • A Hungarian leader from the Calvin Synod.  I think they'd like to start their own seminary, and they're looking for ideas.
  • A woman from Maine, who wanted to know more about the arts and music in ministry at ESR.

I'm not sure how many new students I attracted, but I am sure that I gave my little spiel about ESR at least a hundred times.  Marie Eastman, a current ESR student, was there as a Synod volunteer, and I also found several indirect ESR connections.  I spoke to people who knew several of our UCC-ordained recent graduates, including Hunter Thompson and Tyler Conoley.

Synod Business

I took a few breaks from manning the display to sit in on some of the business sessions.  High parliamentary procedure is the process there, with voting by a thousand delegates apportioned democratically.  It's quite a spectacle, like a political convention, except that the process pauses frequently for prayer.  The UCC's polity is very congregational, so the resolutions of Synod are not binding on local congregations or on individual members.  Synod speaks "to, not for" the congregations; congregations consider themselves bound in covenant to prayerfully consider the resolutions of the Synod, but not necessarily to agree with them or to obey them. 

The Synod ratified a "Mutual Recognition of Baptism", an ecumenical agreement previously worked out between the Roman Catholic Church and the four major parts of the Reformed tradition in the United States (United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Reformed Church of America, and the Christian Reformed Church).  In other business, the Synod tabled a resolution relating to the Palestinian situation -- a resolution that would have called for actions including divestments and boycotts.  It adopted a resolution calling for advocacy on behalf of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and another resolution supporting the right of LGBT people to adopt and raise children.  It approved a resolution in support of "mindful and faithful eating", a resolution calling for the release of Puerto Rican political prisoners, and a strong resolution "To Counter Actions of Hostility Against Islam and the Muslim Community".

After some tense debate, the Synod also approved revisions to the UCC's constitution and bylaws.  These revisions streamlined the governing boards of the denomination, establishing a "unified governance".  (The prior mess of overlapping governing boards was an artifact of the UCC's history as a child of the mergers of a number of earlier denominations.)  Incidentally, these revisions also removed some gendered language from the denomination's 1957 constitution: "believing in God as Father" is now "believing in the triune God", for example.  Conservative religious news services pounced on this change, and Christian News Wire reported it under the headline, "United Church of Christ Set to Reject God the Father"!

Common Ground

The polity at Synod was rowdy and parliamentary, and the worship noisy and theatrical.  It made quite a contrast with the Quaker ways I loved at ESR.  Yet, as I told people over and over, I think ESR is a great place for UCC folks to study.

For one thing, the UCC slogan these days is "God is Still Speaking," including that trailing comma to indicate open-ended, continuing revelation.  (That sounds familiar -- isn't that just the sort of idea that got people thrown into prison in George Fox's time?)  UCC folks at ESR get a chance to learn from a tradition that not only expects continuing revelation, but also has a strong shared practice of listening for it.

Another point of contact is in our diversity.  With the flexibility of its highly congregational polity, the UCC holds together a lot of diversity.  (Even while the Synod was voting for a progressive set of resolutions, its "Biblical Witness" subgroup was in the exhibit hall asserting their dissenting opinions that A) God is the Father, and B) He isn't happy about homosexual behaviors.)  Most of the people I spoke with were unaware that modern Quakerism encompasses a similar degree of diversity.

A third connection is our shared stance of respect for science -- a special area of interest for me because of my former career as a professor of computer science.  At Synod I attended the dinner of the UCC's "Science and Technology" working group.  There I heard a very interesting presentation on evolutionary psychology, bringing it into conversation with Christian ethics.  It was a solid talk -- respectful, intelligent, humorous, and challenging -- a pleasant surprise these days, when so many discussions involving faith and science seem to degenerate into knee-jerk reenactments of the Scopes trial.  I found myself wishing I could bring the speaker to a colloquium on faith and science at ESR.  There are too few places these days where such conversations are welcome.

For these and many other reasons, I'm glad that ESR had a representative at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, and I'm grateful that I got to be it.  I'm an introvert, as some of you know well, and it should have been highly effortful for me to spend five days striking up conversations with strangers.  As it turned out, I really enjoyed it.  I'm sure I have some brothers and sisters in the UCC who would benefit from finding ESR, and it was fun to try my hand at helping them make that connection.


Adam Webber

Adam WebberAdam Webber graduated with an MDiv from the ESR Access program in 2011.  He is a founding member of the Open Prairie United Church of Christ in Princeton, Illinois, where he has served as organist, composer, preacher, teacher, retreat leader, and chocolatier.  He blogs at adambrookswebber.com .


  1. Very nice report -peppered with personal reflection and historical commentary. Thanks for sharing