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Living dangerously

National | In the aftermath of a gloomy general assembly of the National Council of Churches in Atlanta last month, insiders are saying the NCC may not survive another year

Issue: "Gore strikes out," Dec. 9, 2000

The honeymoon is over for Robert Edgar. He's the former congressman and seminary president the National Council of Churches recruited as general secretary last year to help keep the financially and theologically troubled NCC afloat.

Mr. Edgar envisioned widening the NCC's ecumenical base of three dozen member denominations to include the Roman Catholic Church, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). So, when he was invited to add his name to endorsements of "A Christian Declaration of Marriage" by leaders of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the NAE, and the SBC, he gladly signed on.

The declaration, initiated by the NAE and released Nov. 14, urges churches to develop programs "to reduce the divorce rate and increase the marriage rate." The paper defines marriage as a "holy union of one man and one woman" in which the couple commits to build a "loving, life-giving, faithful relationship" that lasts a lifetime.

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Renewal leaders within the mainline denominations hailed the joint effort to address what they described as America's most critical social problem.

On the same day the declaration was released, Mr. Edgar at the NCC general assembly proudly acknowledged his name on it, and he complimented the evangelicals' faithfulness to the gospel.

However, gay-friendly liberals upbraided him, complaining that the one-man-one-woman definition was a slap in the face of homosexuals in the council. They said he had no right to sign anything like that without official approval. Among the critics: President John Thomas of the United Church of Christ, the only NCC denomination that officially supports ordination of active homosexuals and same-sex unions, and retired United Methodist bishop Melvin Talbert. Mr. Talbert, a former NCC president who still wields considerable clout in the council, also supports such ordinations and same-sex unions.

Two days later, at a breakfast caucus of some two dozen homosexuals and their supporters, Mr. Edgar, a United Methodist, defended his having signed the statement. He said the declaration was intended to uphold the value of marriage, not to be against "holy unions."

He also said he personally favored the blessing of same-sex unions. And, he added, "We were involved in taking out language that was extremely offensive."

On Nov. 17, Mr. Edgar opened the final day of the annual assembly with an apology to all he had "offended" by signing the document. He said he would ask that his name be removed. He also affirmed support for inclusion of the homosexual-oriented Metropolitan Community Church in the NCC; its bids for membership had twice been rejected as a result of pressure by the Orthodox and other conservative member denominations.

Renewalists voiced dismay and outrage at Mr. Edgar's about-face. And NAE president Kevin Mannoia said he was "deeply disappointed." He said he didn't know what "offensive language" Mr. Edgar was talking about, since he did not participate in the drafting of the document (although NCC associate general secretary Eileen Linder did).

Ironically, Mr. Edgar may have added to the severity of the NCC's problems by taking a public stand in favor of same-sex unions and the admittance of the Metropolitan Community Church. Relations with Orthodox member churches already are strained over theological issues, and leaders of some other denominations are adamantly opposed to same-sex unions.

But it may not matter for long. The NCC is deep in red ink; it is still struggling to raise enough money to balance and close its books for 1999. It spent $6 million more than it took in that year, $4 million from now-depleted reserves, including restricted funds that must be paid back.

Its appeals for bailout funds from member communions have fallen largely on deaf ears. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) coughed up $500,000. Instead of a bailout gift, the United Methodist Church advanced a $400,000 loan at 7 percent interest. Payments on the loan are to be subtracted from normal giving to the NCC, and when the loan is paid off, the UMC will give the 7 percent accrual to the council-if it achieves "positive net assets and a balanced operating budget." Only about half of the member denominations give anything at all; a small handful provides the bulk of the support.

The coming year's budget is based on projections of income ($1.05 million for the first six months) never before achieved. It also requires steep program cuts and the dismissal of nearly one-fourth of the 67-member staff.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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