Christianity: United Church of Christ

Elizabeth C Nordbeck. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Overview

The United Church of Christ (UCC), founded in the United States in 1957, was the product of four preexisting religious groups: the Congregational Church, the Christian Churches (or Christian Connexion), the German Reformed Church, and the German Evangelical Church. With common commitments to Christian unity and theological openness, these groups went through several mergers prior to the 1957 creation of the United Church of Christ. The UCC is recognized as one of the most theologically and socially progressive of the mainline American Protestant denominations.

With membership only in the United States (with the exception of four congregations in Canada that are part of the church’s North Dakota Conference), the UCC is not a global church. It is, however, one of several merged Christian communions internationally that share the name “United Church.”

History

Congregationalism, the largest and oldest of the UCC’s member traditions, arose in the late 1500s as a protest against the Church of England (Anglican Church). The Pilgrims, who advocated total separation from the Church of England, and the Puritans, a larger and more influential group who hoped to change and purify the church, migrated to New England in the early seventeenth century. They established independent local congregations of believers (from which the name “Congregationalist” derives), which, rather than a national or regional body, defined the “true church.” Both Congregational groups adapted Genevan reformer John Calvin’s ideas to the American environment and considered religious homogeneity in church and community essential.

The Christian Churches, the UCC’s smallest and only indigenous strain, emerged in the early 1800s as a diverse, bible-based fellowship. Arriving at similar conclusions about the nature of church and faith, defectors from three groups—Baptists in New England, Methodists in Virginia, and Presbyterians in Kentucky—gathered in small churches in the early 1800s in rural and frontier America. Eschewing creeds, confessions, and the formalities of both church life and traditional theology, they accepted the Bible as their sole authority, rejected sectarianism, and insisted that right action, rather than right belief, was the most important factor in a Christian’s life. Members embraced theological positions ranging from unitarian to evangelical. In 1931, drawn together by common commitments to church unity and theological openness, the General Convention of Christian Churches merged with the National Council of Congregational Churches, becoming the Congregational Christian Churches.

The German Reformed came to the American East and Midwest in two separate migrations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to escape war, poverty, and social unrest in their homeland. Theologically similar to Congregationalists, the Reformed differed in their understanding of “church” as an aggregate, unified by common worship and polity, rather than as a group of individual congregations. The UCC’s second largest tradition, the German Reformed also had an ecumenical bent.

The German Evangelicals, forming the youngest UCC tradition, began migrating to Illinois and Missouri in the 1830s. Independent, open-minded, and often indifferent to doctrinal particularities, they stood for the tradition of “unionistic” Protestantism that had flourished in their homeland. In the United States they were influenced not only by their isolation on the frontier but also by Swiss missionaries who emphasized the importance of religious experience over theology. Strong ecumenical commitments and ties of history and ethnicity led the German Reformed Church to unite with the General Convention of the Evangelical Synod in 1934, becoming the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

Recognizing similarities in their history, theology, and social commitments, leaders of these two larger bodies—the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church—began informal conversations in 1937. Questions over independence, authority, and legality postponed the union until 1957, when they became the United Church of Christ.

Central Doctrines

The heritage of the United Church of Christ is essentially orthodox: Most adherents believe in the Trinity (the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), claim as their own the ancient creeds and reformulations of the Protestant Reformation, rely on the Bible as the religious authority, and recognize the two sacraments of baptism and Communion. Within that orthodoxy, theological perspectives vary from evangelical to liberal, though the latter dominates. The original and continuing need to mediate differences among the four constituent traditions necessitates theological openness. The UCC is known for its diversity, and most members agree with a saying common among Protestant humanists in the sixteenth century: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Perspectives about the nature of the church also vary, but members generally agree that the UCC is founded on the Bible, the writings of the Protestant reformers, and the inspired understandings of each new generation. In believing that Jesus Christ is the sole head of the church, they affirm that all human leadership is radically equal and that all members share a common Christian experience and a responsibility for the church’s mission in the world. The church has four basic purposes: to proclaim the gospel through Scripture, sacrament, and witness; to gather and support communities of the faithful for celebration and mission; to manifest more fully the unity of church, humankind, and creation; and to work to further God’s realm of justice, peace, and love.

Moral Code of Conduct

Though the Ten Commandments are part of its foundation, the UCC insists on no “black and white” moral or ethical codes. UCC members are expected—but never directed—to behave out of obedience to God, love for neighbor, and respect for self, as specific situations demand. The church respects the right of private judgment in these situations and the need to allow for changing historical and cultural circumstances.

Sacred Books

Like other mainline Protestant denominations, the UCC sees the Bible as the foremost and final revelation of God’s word. Members do not understand it literally, however, as a rulebook for Christian conduct or an accurate historical record but as the dramatic story of God’s grace, God’s people, and God’s mercy and admonishment through the ages. Members believe that the Bible, though divinely inspired, was written by human beings for a variety of purposes and audiences and that its primary purpose is to reveal God’s plan for the world and bring people to God’s redeeming love. Faithful interpretation requires an awareness of the particular contexts that influenced and limited the Bible’s writers, as well as a knowledge of contemporary realities.

Sacred Symbols

The UCC inherited from the Swiss Reformation a general opposition to venerating religious images, and in its early history the UCC insisted on a simplicity of pulpit, font, and communion table. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, saw an increasing use of visual symbolism. Some UCC members wear crosses as symbols of their faith and their fidelity to Christ, and most church sanctuaries include an altar cross, but these are not venerated or treated with ritual care.

Early and Modern Leaders

The UCC’s Congregational tradition has provided the greatest number of famous historical figures, including John Winthrop (1588-1649), lay leader and first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony; Richard Mather (1596-1669), Increase Mather (1639-1723), and Cotton Mather (1663-1728), architects and historians of the “New England way,” emphasizing the independence of local churches and the church community as a way of life; and Washington Gladden (1836-1918), pastor and pioneer of the Social Gospel movement. In 1853 Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921) became the first Congregationalist woman to be ordained.

Revivalist Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), associated with both the Presbyterian and Congregational churches, helped introduce Arminian theology into the solidly Calvinist Congregational tradition. (Arminius’s doctrines opposed the absolute predestination of strict Calvinism and maintained the possibility of salvation for all.) Finney later became president of Oberlin College. Among other UCC leaders were Elias Smith (1764-1846) and Abner Jones, the publishers of the first religious newspaper in the Christian tradition, the Herald of Gospel Liberty, and such civil rights activists as Andrew Young (b. 1932) and Benjamin Chavis (b. 1948).

Major Theologians and Authors

The denomination’s most famous theologian is Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), a Congregationalist and major figure in the “Great Awakening” revivalist movement of the 1740s. From the Reformed tradition, John Williamson Nevin (1803-86) and Philip Schaff (1819-93) helped shape the path of ecumenical progress in the mid-nineteenth century. German evangelicals and brothers Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) were internationally prominent twentieth-century theologians who helped articulate a scripture-based movement that became known as neoorthodoxy.

Prominent figures in today’s church include systematic theologian and ecumenist Gabriel Fackre; former seminary president and church history professor Barbara Brown Zikmund, an expert on theological education and women’s issues; ethicist Max Stackhouse; and John Thomas, general minister and president of the denomination and a noted promoter of Christian unity.

Organizational Structure

The UCC’s government contains both autonomous and cooperative elements. Local churches are independent but are grouped in associations, which have responsibilities for ordaining, installing, and disciplining pastors; for receiving (and dismissing) churches; and for caring generally for the welfare of local congregations in the area. Associations are subunits of larger conferences, which provide services, counsel, venues for common mission, and administrative support to churches and associations. The general synod, the national representative body, issues pronouncements and sets priorities for the denomination but speaks “to, not for” the churches.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

UCC houses of worship range from simple white clapboard buildings—the familiar “New England meetinghouse”—to the substantial stone and stained-glass churches of Pennsylvania and other regions. The trend for new churches is to create multipurpose buildings with flexible space for both worship and other activities.

What is Sacred?

UCC members typically do not recognize either places or particular objects as inherently holy or sacred. Rather, God is sacred, and the holiness inherent in religious gatherings (where members worship or do the work of God) derives from the sacredness of God.

Holidays and Festivals

Like other Protestant groups, the UCC emphasizes Christmas and Easter. Because of contacts with other churches and new members from more liturgical (such as German heritage) traditions, local churches are increasingly observing Lent (culminating in Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services), Advent, and Pentecost. Some United Churches also mark Passion Sunday, Ascension Day, and Reformation Day with special preaching or prayers.

Mode of Dress

During services UCC pastors generally wear a white alb (full-length, long-sleeved vestment), black Geneva gown, or academic-style robe and a stole, the color of which is determined by the season of the church year. Casual or street dress is the rule outside of church. Some of the clergy, particularly those of Evangelical and Reformed background, wear a clerical collar when conducting worship, and a few wear it when in street dress. A minority prefer to wear no clerical garb at all, arguing that since ministry is the responsibility of all the people of God, clergy should not dress distinctively.

Dietary Practices

Members of the United Church of Christ observe no notable dietary restrictions.

Rituals

The UCC prescribes no particular ritual forms. Although the Congregational-Christian tradition had a common format for service, they had no set prayers and were historically devoid of other ritual. Many UCC churches still closely follow services in the Pilgrim Hymnal or Free Church Worship Book. The influence of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and ties with other churches have moved the UCC toward greater formality, especially in the eucharistic liturgy and in settings and events beyond the local church. Public celebrations are often innovative within the boundaries of tradition and sometimes involve the arts. Individual members often develop private rituals, such as prayer, meditation, journal writing, and other devotional practices.

Rites of Passage

The denomination’s Book of Worship offers alternatives from both contemporary and traditional sources for sacraments, marriages, funerals, dedications, installations of pastors and church officers, leave-takings, and confirmation. Children acknowledge their baptisms and are formally accepted as church members during confirmation, which typically takes place at 12 or older. Children used to receive their first Communion at confirmation, but parents are increasingly allowing younger children to take Communion, believing that children need do nothing to merit grace.

Membership

Evangelization has become more important to the UCC as the American population becomes ever more diverse. Slow to use new technologies for this work, the denomination since 2000 has sought new members through a website, identity videos, and internally produced television programs. The UCC is formally committed to becoming a multicultural, multiracial communion, accessible to all, and has focused its evangelizing efforts on various ethnic groups (including African American, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian) and religious traditions (such as Armenian Evangelical, German Congregational, Hungarian Reformed). These religious and ethnic groups, outside the UCC’s four founding communions, have significantly informed and influenced the contemporary church. Though not in great numbers, members of these groups play a highly visible role in UCC leadership.

Religious Tolerance

Born out of the passionate desire for church unity among its founders and formed in an era of social upheaval, the UCC is open, inclusive, and tolerant of diversity, both theologically and structurally. The founders chose an inclusive name, without historical antecedent. The UCC participates in national and international ecumenical discussions (including the National and World Councils of Churches, Churches Uniting in Christ, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches) and has relationships with other churches around the globe.

Social Justice

One of the most socially active American Protestant churches, the UCC has taken strong and often controversial stands against numerous injustices, in particular racism, war (UCC is a “just peace church”), and economic oppression. The Puritans placed a high value on an educated electorate, and the UCC has supported public schools. The general synod, individual conferences, and local churches regularly take action and issue formal pronouncements about social issues, including the death penalty, sexual harassment, sexism, the right of women to choose abortion, and gay rights. The UCC routinely accepts openly gay and lesbian applicants into the ordained ministry and other leadership positions.

Social Aspects

Like other Protestant denominations, the UCC supports marriage and strong family ties, yet recognizes that, given human imperfection, marriages must sometimes be dissolved. Many members also recognize nontraditional families. An increasing number of United Church ministers conduct services of union for same-sex couples, arguing that committed partnership should be blessed, not rejected, by the church.

Controversial Issues

In the mid-seventeenth century disagreements over the “Half-Way Covenant” led to a major controversy in Puritan Congregational communities. Puritans granted church membership only to people with a personal experience of conversion or revelation, and though the children of the original Puritan colony had been baptized, few had conversion experiences. Thus, when they wanted their own children baptized, they were denied this privilege because they were not church members themselves. This created a crisis in Congregational churches. Some compromised their strict ideals by allowing these children to be baptized; these churches subscribed to what they called the HalfWay Covenant. Other Puritan Congregationalists wanted to keep the stricter rule.

In the nineteenth century Charles Grandison Finney’s introduction of Arminian theology, the basic position of the Methodists, into the Calvinist Congregationalist tradition caused some controversy. Finney opposed Calvin’s idea of predestination (in which only those selected by God could be saved) with the idea that every person has the choice to accept God’s offer of salvation.

Since the founding of the United Church of Christ in 1957, UCC members have debated various issues, including labor organizing, abortion, war, and sexual orientation.

Cultural Impact

The Puritan tradition of the UCC—particularly the strong work ethic, the insistence on an educated electorate, and the idea that the local community should be free to govern its own affairs—has had a profound influence on American culture in the areas of commerce, education, and politics. Although art, especially of a representational sort, has not been an emphasis of the denomination or its antecedent traditions, many men and women of letters were among early New England Congregationalists, including Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet (the first female author published in the American colonies), William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, and James Russell Lowell.