Summary of the United Church of Christ
The United Church of Christ (UCC) is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination primarily in the Reformed tradition but also historically influenced by Lutheranism. The Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches united in 1957 to form the UCC. These two denominations, which were themselves the result of earlier unions, had their roots in Congregational, Christian, Evangelical, and Reformed denominations. The UCC's 5,320 congregations claim about 1.1 million members, primarily in the United States.
The UCC maintains full communion with several other mainline Protestant denominations and participates in worldwide ecumenical efforts. The national settings of the UCC have historically favored progressive or liberal views on civil rights, gay rights, women's rights, abortion, and other social issues. However, United Church of Christ congregations have freedom in matters of doctrine and ministry, and may or may not support the national body's theological or moral stances. It is self-described as "an extremely pluralistic and diverse denomination".
Doctrine and Beliefs
Statements of Doctrine and Beliefs
The UCC uses four words to describe itself: "Christian, Reformed, Congregational and Evangelical." The church's diversity and adherence to covenantal polity (rather than government by regional elders or bishops) give individual congregations a great deal of freedom in the areas of worship, congregational life, and doctrine.
The motto of the United Church of Christ comes from John 17:21: "That they may all be one." The denomination's official literature uses broad doctrinal parameters, honoring creeds and confessions as "testimonies of faith" rather than "tests of faith," and emphasizes freedom of individual conscience and local church autonomy. Indeed, the relationship between local congregations and the denomination's national headquarters is covenantal rather than hierarchical: local churches have complete control of their finances, hiring and firing of clergy and other staff, and theological and political stands.
In the United Church of Christ, creeds, confessions, and affirmations of faith function as "testimonies to faith" around which the church gathers rather than as "tests of faith" rigidly prescribing required doctrinal consent. As expressed on the United Church of Christ constitution:
The United Church of Christ acknowledges as its sole Head, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior. It acknowledges as kindred in Christ all who share in this confession. It looks to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to prosper its creative and redemptive work in the world. It claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers. It affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God. In accordance with the teaching of our Lord and the practice prevailing among evangelical Christians, it recognizes two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion.
The denomination, therefore, looks to a number of historic confessions as expressing the common faith around which the church gathers, including:
- the Apostles' Creed,
- the Nicene Creed,
- the Heidelberg Catechism (inherited from both the German Reformed and German Evangelical heritages),
- Luther's Small Catechism (inherited from the German Evangelical heritage),
- the Kansas City Statement of Faith (a 1913 statement in the Congregationalist tradition),
- the Evangelical Catechism (a 1927 catechism in the German Evangelical tradition), and
- the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ (written at the founding of the denomination).
System and Ethos of Polity
Quoting the United Church of Christ Constitution, "The basic unit of the life and organization of the United Church of Christ is the local church." An interplay of wider interdependence with local autonomy characterizes the organization of the UCC. Each "setting" of the United Church of Christ relates covenantally with other settings, their actions speaking "to but not for" each other.
The ethos of United Church of Christ organization is considered "covenantal." The structure of UCC organization is a mixture of the congregational and presbyterian polities of its predecessor denominations. With ultimate authority on most matters given to the local church, many see United Church of Christ polity as closer to congregationalism; however, with ordination and pastoral oversight conducted by Associations, and General Synod representation given to Conferences instead of congregational delegates, certain presbyterian similarities are also visible.
The basic unit of the United Church of Christ is the local church (also often called the congregation). Local churches have the freedom to govern themselves, establishing their own internal organizational structures and theological positions. Thus, local church governance varies widely throughout the denomination. Some congregations, mainly of Congregational or Christian origin, have numerous relatively-independent "boards" that oversee different aspects of church life, with annual or more frequent meetings (often conducted after a worship service on a Sunday afternoon) of the entire congregation to elect officers, approve budgets and set congregational policy. Other churches, mainly of Evangelical and Reformed descent, have one central "church council" or "consistory" that handles most or all affairs in a manner somewhat akin to a Presbyterian session, while still holding an annual congregational meeting for the purpose of electing officers and/or ratifying annual budgets. Still others, probably those congregations started after the 1957 merger, have structures incorporating aspects of both, or other alternative organizational structures entirely.
In almost all cases, though, the selection of a minister for the congregation is, in keeping with the Reformed tradition of the "priesthood of all believers," vested in a congregational meeting, held usually after a special ad hoc committee searches on the congregation's behalf for a candidate. Members of the congregation vote for or against the committee's recommended candidate for the pastorate, usually immediately after the candidate has preached a "trial sermon;" candidates are usually presented one at a time and not as a field of several to be selected from. Typically the candidate must secure anywhere from 60 to 90 percent affirmative votes from the membership before the congregation issues a formal call to the candidate; this depends on the provisions in the congregation's particular constitution and/or by-laws. Local churches have, in addition to the freedom to hire ministers and lay staff, the sole power to dismiss them also. However, unlike purely congregational polities, the association has the main authority to ordain clergy and grant standing to clergy coming to a church from another association or another denomination (this authority is exercised "in cooperation with" the person being ordained/called and the local church that is calling them). Such standing, among other things, permits a minister to participate in the UCC clergy pension and insurance plans. Local churches are usually aided in searching for and calling ordained clergy through a denominationally-coordinated "search-and-call" system, usually facilitated by staff at the conference level. However, the local church may, for various reasons, opt not to avail itself of the conference placement system, and is free to do so without fear of retaliation, which would likely occur in synodical or presbyterian polities. Participation in the process, though, is usually a sign of the congregation's loyalty to the larger denomination and its work.
Local churches are typically gathered together in regional bodies called Associations. Local churches often give financial support to the association to support its activities. The official delegates of an association are all ordained clergy within the bounds of the association together with lay delegates sent from each local church. The association's main ecclesiastical function is to provide primary oversight and authorization of ordained and other authorized ministers. The association ordains new ministers, holds ministers' standing in covenant with local churches, and is responsible for disciplinary action; typically a specific ministerial committee handles these duties. Associations meet at least once annually to elect officers and board members and set budgets for the association's work; fellowship and informational workshops are often conducted during those meetings, which may take place more frequently according to local custom. In a few instances where there is only one association within a conference, or where the associations within a conference have agreed to dissolve, the Conference (below) assumes the association's functions.
Local churches also are members of larger Conferences, of which there are 38 in the United Church of Christ. A conference typically contains multiple associations; if no associations exist within its boundaries, the conference exercises the functions of the association as well. Conferences are supported financially through local churches' contribution to "Our Church's Wider Mission" (formerly "Our Christian World Mission"), the United Church of Christ's denominational support system; unlike most associations, they usually have permanent headquarters and professional staff. The primary ecclesiastical function of a conference is to provide the primary support for the search-and-call process by which churches select ordained leadership; the conference minister and/or his or her associates perform this task in coordination with the congregation's pulpit search committee (see above) and the association to which the congregation belongs (particularly its ministerial committee). Conferences also provide significant programming resources for their constituent churches, such as Christian education resources and support, interpretation of the larger UCC's mission work, and church extension within their bounds (the latter usually conducted in conjunction with the national Local Church Ministries division).
Conferences, like associations, are congregationally representative bodies, with each local church sending ordained and lay delegates. Most current UCC conferences were formed in the several years following the consummation of the national merger in 1961, and in some instances were the unions of former Congregational Christian conferences (led by superintendents) and Evangelical and Reformed synods (led by presidents, some of whom only served on a part-time basis). A few have had territorial adjustments since then; only one conference, the Calvin Synod, composed of Hungarian-heritage Reformed congregations, received exemption from the geographical alignments, with its churches scattered from Connecticut westward to California and southward to Florida. Only one conference has ever withdrawn completely from the denomination: Puerto Rico, expressing disapproval of national UCC tolerance of homosexuality (as well as that of a large number of mainland congregations), departed the denomination in 2006, taking all of its churches.
The denomination's churchwide deliberative body is the General Synod, which meets every two years. The General Synod consists of delegates elected from the Conferences (distributed proportionally by conference size) together with the boards of directors of each of the four covenanted ministries (see below, under National Offices).
While General Synod provides the most visible voice of the "stance of the denomination" on any particular issue, the covenantal polity of the denomination means that General Synod speaks to local churches, associations, and conferences, but not for them. Thus, the other settings of the church are allowed to hold differing views and practices on all non-constitutional matters.
General Synod considers three kinds of resolutions:
- Pronouncements: A Pronouncement is a statement of Christian conviction on a matter of moral or social principle and has been adopted by a two-thirds vote of a General Synod.
- Proposals for Action: A Proposal for Action is a recommendation for specific directional statements and goals implementing a Pronouncement. A Proposal for Action normally accompanies a Pronouncement. (See link above regarding Pronouncements.)
- Resolutions and Other Formal Motions Which may consist of the following three types:
- Resolutions of Witness: A Resolution of Witness is an expression of the General Synod concerning a moral, ethical, or religious matter confronting the church, the nation, or the world, adopted for the guidance of the officers, Associated, or Affiliated Ministries, or other bodies as defined in Article VI of the Bylaws of the United Church of Christ; the consideration of local churches, Associations, Conferences, and other bodies related to the United Church of Christ; and for a Christian witness to the world. It represents agreement by at least two-thirds of the delegates voting that the view expressed is based on Christian conviction and is a part of their witness to Jesus Christ.
- Prudential Resolutions: A Prudential Resolution establishes policy, institutes or revises structure or procedures, authorizes programs, approves directions, or requests actions by a majority vote.
United Church News
The denomination's official publication, United Church News, was begun in 1985 by the Rev. W. Evan Golder, founding editor. The current editor, the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, succeeded Golder in 2003 after serving as "minister for communication and mission education" for the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.
United Church News is published by the Office of Communication, United Church of Christ, which is related to the Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry of the United Church of Christ, led by the Rev. Robert Chase of Lakewood, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. Chase began work at the UCC’s national offices in Cleveland in April 1999.
Several regional editions are published by conferences as inserts to the nationally distributed edition. At its inception, the newspaper charged a subscription fee, but in the early 2000s this was discontinued in favour of free distribution. In 2005, UCN reduced frequency of publication, from ten issues per year to six, on a bi-monthly basis.
Unfortunately, due to rising printing costs, the OGM made the decision in March 2009 to discontinue the print edition of United Church News in September. UCN will become a strictly online service. However, the OC expressed a desire to launch a new, twice-annual publication sometime in 2010.
Previous publications serving the UCC were United Church Herald (1958-1972) and A.D. (1972-1983). United Church Herald was, not surpiringly, a merger of the Congregational Christian Churches' Advance and the Evangelical and Reformed Church's Messenger. A.D. was a joint publication of the UCC and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. A.D. was discontinued when the UPCUSA merged with the Presbyterian Church in the United States to form the present Presbyterian Church (USA), in order for the new denomination to establish its own official periodical.