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Theology in Congregational Polity

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"We have come to declare what we believe about God," so proclaimed Rev. Traci Blackmon during the opening worship of the United Church of Christ General Synod.  And we were down to work to do just that. Committees gathered this afternoon in educational intensives to learn about the issues addressed in the resolutions assigned to them.   This is how the theological work of the church is accomplished.

I'm in committee #14 and we were assigned the resolution on studying gun violence as a public health emergency.  When we arrived for our educational intensive we learned that we had also been assigned the late resolution on climate change, reacting to the President withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.

These resolutions were joined together because both cited John 18:37-38 in their theological rationale.  Both were about speaking truth.  In one case, public health researchers are not empowered to pursue the truth regarding gun violence and in the other, climate change and the moral imperatives of the moment are denied.

The climate change resolution was targeted to what we as the church should do, most importantly what we should proclaim. This is a resolution about the power of preaching, the effectiveness of the spoken word of God to advance God’s mission upon the earth.  And the committee discussion swirled around precisely these points, why the author, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Massachusetts Conference Minister, had written the resolution this way instead of within the more expected theological framework of our stewardship of creation or God’s sovereignty.

And so we debated.  What were the best words to express our consensus?  Someone would raise a question or critique and the room would move toward them to accommodate them.  Then, someone else would make another point, and we’d move toward them.  And we’d try to keep everyone’s point-of-view included. So, for an example.

In lines 74-75 of the climate resolution, one somewhat conservative member of the Massachusetts conference didn’t like the reference to the administration or the use of the verb will, which seemed to speak for and not to the church (which is what Synod does).  He proposed new wording, that was probably fine with most of us.  Then, someone said they thought his wording wasn’t quite strong enough, so they proposed “any administration” in order to make the resolution not simply a response to Trump.  Many of us weren’t sure about this recommendation.

Then a pastor from rural Ohio spoke.  She had preached on this issue in her conservative congregation.  She needed the denomination to include the political reference because it supported her preaching.  Yes, we were in this committee discussing the role of the spoken word of God to speak truth.

And so we were soon bogged down in multiple wordings of the sentence, so I worked out what I hoped would be wording that kept everyone at the table.  The committee chair, who did an excellent job the whole session, appeared a little frustrated that I wanted to offer another option to the already bewildering array of choices.

My wording was “When the powers-that-be deny or obscure the truth, we followers of Jesus will proclaim the truth to protect our common home.”  Immediately many of the parties liked it.  The Ohio pastor wasn’t convinced it addressed her need.  But after some further discussion it was the overwhelming consensus of the body. 

Here, in theological, even Christological language, we had expressed our mission as the people of God.

And, this is how we do theology in the United Church of Christ, with God’s people talking with one another, learning from one another, holding each other in relationship.  Thereby we declare what we believe about God.

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