When we think about the things that make the United Church of Christ both special and formidable in the context of American Protestantism (because I know how much time you spend thinking about this), what may come most readily to mind is a sense of our denominational hospitality, our openness to varieties of faith, and life, experiences. Perhaps we think about the welcome offered to individuals less readily integrated into other faith traditions. What some church communities would think of censoriously as “lowering the bar,” we think of confidently as “widening the welcome.” We can, and do, work to make as many diverse kinds of folk at home here as we are able, and that is surely something to celebrate.
Yet it doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens because we are a part of a larger entity a wide community of faithful churches that willingly struggle together in defining what it means to live out the gospel for our time. We do not all agree on the results at any given stage, but by and large we remain committed to the attempt. What, for example, might the chances be of any individual congregation adopting an Open and Affirming commitment, without the witness of a denomination wrestling with the issue first? This is the thing for which I love our United Church of Christ most deeply, that well-informed enthusiasm with which we launch into risky ecclesial waters, assuming that together, we can learn to mediate the ensuing conflicts. It is a very daring way to operate in our hair trigger culture.
Still, this requires the solid commitment of our constituent congregations. The United Church of Christ is structured in such a way that everything is voluntary, at every level, and this carries within it the seeds of trouble. We, as a congregation have no contractual obligation to support the work of this church, beyond our own very tiny boundaries. The stability of the wider church is always tenuous, since its fortunes rise and fall with the vagaries of local church opinion. It is much too easy for us, at this local level, to take for granted the work of the wider church, to imagine we do not need it, to find the work too challenging, or insufficiently utilitarian.
I mean simply to dip my oar in with regard to the way we view Our Churches Wider Mission (OCWM), a financial commitment we make to this marvelous denominational structure. I have heard it spoken about as being the “dues” we pay to the UCC and frankly, that rankles. OCWM is entirely voluntary, like any pledge we make to our local church. It is a gift that we willingly, and I hope lovingly, offer in support of the incredible work done in our behalf. Our gift supports so much seen and unseen, objective and subjective, realized and potential. We do the practical things like administer insurance and pension programs for clergy, develop curriculum for the study of scripture and issues relevant to our local church work. Anyone that has ever served on a Search Team for a new clergy staff member will be able to imagine how much more challenging that task might be without our national Profile Office.
Without our OCWM support there would be no national witness on critical issues, no efforts for justice in Washington D. C., no national voice expressed on the ground, in the places where it is needed. Nothing to which we could point and say, “see, that’s how we roll.” From the little things like the spiritual comfort and reflection so many of us derive from parts of the UCC website (www.ucc.org) to things like General Synod (So inspiring) and National Youth Event (So energetic) our voluntary, and maybe even enthusiastic, support is critical. Despite the numbers of congregations that do not care to support all this, our denomination still invests heavily in creating new church communities around the country, and renewing older, more established churches as well.
I know we are supposed to be living in a post-denominational world, one where denominations make little difference to us, but I hope we can come to see the rich value of the voluntary associations that go into the structures of the UCC. Our denomination is built from the ground up rather than from the top down. While the local congregation is the essential building block, it is that commitment to wider community that makes the UCC something incredibly special.