As a birthday party, the 50th anniversary meeting of the National Council of Churches in Cleveland last month was more bust than bash.
Organizers of the NCC's "50th Anniversary Fete" had hoped for 2,000 persons to attend their birthday party, but far fewer than 1,000 registered for the event, and most of them seemed to question the continued usefulness of the Council, long known for its liberal theology and radical positions on social issues.
Founded in 1950 by representatives of 29 denominations, the NCC eventually claimed 35 denominations including the United Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Churches, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and four Orthodox bodies.
The formation of the NCC represented the high-water mark of liberal Protestantism, and the movement looked invincible. In actuality, it was built upon a very weak foundation, and it never included the majority of congregations in the United States. Groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Presbyterian Church in America have refrained from any participation in the Council.
In its prime years, the NCC looked every bit the religious establishment it aspired to be. Its headquarters at 475 Riverside Drive in New York City was situated on land donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who also built the adjacent Riverside Church as a ecumenical cathedral of Protestant liberalism. Its stodgy architecture was intended to make a statement about permanence. The real architectural statement was ugliness, and the building became known as the "God Box" even by its friends.
The NCC movement appeared so large and mainstream that Samuel McCrae Cavert, the organization's first general secretary, boasted, "It could fairly be described as the central stream of church life in America, other than Roman Catholic." But theological conservatives called the NCC an "ecclesiastical octopus" that threatened to choke the autonomy of the churches and impose its vision of a lowest-common-denominator theology.
Over the last 50 years, most NCC member bodies have suffered a dramatic loss in membership. During that time the NCC has made headlines by coming to the defense of radical figures such as anarchist Angela Davis, supporting the Panama Canal treaty, opposing the Vietnam war, and promoting the use of "inclusive language" for both human beings and God.
In Cleveland last month, saddled with a $4-million budget deficit, NCC leaders struggled to agree on a spending plan-even as they spent over $750,000 on the anniversary celebration. Angered over charges of financial mismanagement, the Orthodox bodies stopped making financial contributions some time ago. This year, the United Methodist Church suspended payment of $340,000 in annual dues until the financial issues are settled.
NCC leaders hope that new officers will bring credibility. Former Ambassador Andrew Young, a member of the United Church of Christ, is to be installed as the group's new president. Retiring general secretary Joan Brown Campbell is to be succeeded by former Rep. William Edgar, a United Methodist. He called the NCC a "35-hump camel" and compared the Council to a man with one foot over a cliff.
Overall, the NCC looks like a ship taking on much water, but unwilling to change course. Having bargained away their theological integrity for the hope of social influence, the NCC and its declining member bodies are left arguing over the budget and lamenting the loss of old dreams.