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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions
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National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
A federation of Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and National Catholic Churches affiliated with the *World Council of Churches. Its membership (reported as 40,605,228 communicants in 1964) represents about two-thirds of the total Christian church population in the U.S. that is not Roman Catholic.
Historical Development. The American counterpart of the world *ecumenical movement had two phases: the formation of new churches through organic merger and the cooperative federation of many denominations for the sake of greater efficiency. Since 1900 the principal denominational cooperatives have been the Federal Council of Churches, organized in 1908, and the National Council of Churches, which succeeded the Federal Council in 1950.
When the Federal Council was formed, its 28 member churches included *Baptists, *Methodists, and *Presbyterians, but the number was only a fraction of the total Protestant population. Its basis of union was modeled on the principles of American democracy. According to its constitution, the Federal Council was to express the fellowship and catholic unity of the Protestant denominations, with a view to bringing them into united service for Christ and the world. Although the largest, the Federal Council was only one of several like agencies that sought to bridge the denominational differences in American Protestantism. They had all been founded to make their work more effective. But this was not enough. As the agencies evolved their programs, they found overlapping and divisions of responsibility. Closer cooperative action was needed. Further study and negotiation were finally terminated in 1941 at a historic Atlantic City, N.J. conference that recommended creation of a single cooperative agency to succeed all of the existing national councils. This met with enthusiastic acceptance, and after 9 years of planning the National Council of Churches was established in Cleveland, Ohio, Nov. 28 to Dec. 1, 1950. Delegates of 29 Protestant and Orthodox bodies joined forces to express their common faith and witness of cooperation with one another.
The preamble of the constitution they adopted stated, In the providence of God, the time has come when it seems fitting more fully to manifest oneness in Jesus Christ as Divine Lord and Savior, by the creation of an inclusive cooperative agency of the Christian Churches in the United States of America. This prelude has since become the guiding norm for the 12 national interdenominational groups that agreed to unite in the interest of improving their influence and effectiveness. Among these groups, the largest was the Federal Council, and the most recent was the Protestant Radio Commission, established in 1947. The other 10 bodies, with their founding dates were: the Foreign Missions Conference of North America (1803 and 1911); the Home Missions Council of North America (1908); the International Council of Religious Education (1922), actually an outgrowth of a national Sunday School Convention (1832); the Missionary Education Movement of the U.S. and Canada (1902); the National Protestant Council on Higher Education (1911); the United Council of Church Women (1940); the United Stewardship Council (1920); Church World Service (1946); Inter-Seminary Committee (1880); and the Protestant Film Commission (1947). Among the contributing factors that helped to shape the National Council was the growing interest in social studies, which showed that American denominationalism was often less doctrinal than cultural and ethnic. Its divisiveness, therefore, could be resolved at least partially by active collaboration in the externals of church life without infringing on the creedal autonomy of the different churches.
Constitutional Structure. The National Council is incorporated pursuant to the laws of the State of New York. Units of the Council are allowed to remain incorporated under the law of a state or of the national government: but this permission does not modify their relationship or obligations to the national body.
Eleven purposes are specified in the constitution, of which the most important is to continue and extend the functions of the original merging societies, along with the *Student Volunteer Movement and the United Student Christian Council that joined after 1950. Each of the other 10 aims is directed to the more general scope of the Christian religion:
Constituent membership in the Council is conditioned on acceptance of its principles and aims, as set forth in the constitution. A religious body becomes a member upon approval by a two-thirds majority vote of the member communions present and voting at a General Assembly, and a corresponding vote of the representatives from the churches. Besides full-fledged membership, the Council admits participation by other organizations, such as state councils of churches, and boards and agencies of communions that are not members of the Council. They are given recognition as affiliates with the privilege of sharing in work being carried forward by the national body. Moreover any group or society that the General Board recognizes as maintained for distinctly Christian purposes may be connected with the Council in the role of a related movement, or at least in fraternal relationship. But always the secondary affiliations must work in accord with its constitution and bylaws to retain recognition by the National Council.
The basic governing body of the Council is the General Assembly, whose membership consists of officers and past presidents of the Council, as well as representatives of the constituent communions. They include seven delegates for each denomination plus one for each 70,000 communicant members, with the stipulation that at least one-fourth be laymen, laywomen, or young people preferably not in the employ of the churches or church organizations. Each constituent denomination may nominate further delegates as being representative of its interests and concerns. Members of the Assembly are appointed or elected for 3 year terms. Between meetings of the General Assembly, the Council is governed by a General Board, which has the full power of the Assembly except the right to amend the constitution or to elect denominations to constituent membership. The internal structure of the Council and the whole of its complex activity are carried on through units established under authority of the General Board.
One passage in the certificate of incorporation reveals the Councils concern not to infringe on the freedom of its constituency. It shall have no authority or administrative control, the document reads, over the communions or churches which become its members or its affiliated or cooperating bodies. It shall have no authority to prescribe a common creed, or form of church government, or form of worship, or to limit the autonomy of such communions or churches.
Achievements and Guiding Principles. Historians of the National Council point to its remarkable achievements in spite of numerous hazards. Thus in the early years of the Council, an organized group of laymen, seeking special privilege, offered the Council the alternative of unlimited financial support for a pact of silence on social issues, or deprivation of its lines of support. Another crisis that the Council is still facing is periodic attack by extremists who charge the officers and spokesmen with theological heresy, atheism, lack of patriotism, and communism. Yet the churches have stood by the Council and joined in its defense.
High among the achievements of the National Council have been the statements it regularly issues on a wide variety of subjectstheological, socio-cultural, and political. These have ranged from Christian Principles of Economic Life to Responsible Parenthood, and from Public Funds for Public Schools to an Advisory Policy Statement on Religious Broadcasting. Such statements serve the purpose of creating a notable image of unity both within the churches belonging to the Council and before the American people. In the words of Roy G. Ross, who guided the Council as general secretary during the first 12 years of its existence, the Council is respected by government as the primary agency of the churches for liaison on matters touching the relations of church and state and programs serving the common weal. Certainly the impact of the Councils philosophy has been deeply felt through its periodic declarations on matters of national concern.
The cause of religious unity has been advanced through the Councils dependence on the World Council of Churches as the principal worldwide agency for ecumenical policy, strategy, and program planning, and on the International Missionary Council and World Council of Christian Education as supplementary agencies in their respective fields. When the first two bodies merged in 1961, this was partly (if not mainly) the result of assistance from the National Council; and the growing concern of the churches for moral and spiritual values in public education is due largely to the steady effort of the Councils leadership to stem the tide of secularization in American life.
In a more tangible way, the Council has undertaken the cause of Christian unity by forming a permanent committee to study the problem of denominationalism and to recommend ways of fostering reunification. One result has been a number of significant mergers of large denominations. Two examples are the *United Church of Christ, formed in 1957 by a union of the Evangelical and Reformed with the Congregational Christian bodies; and the American Lutheran Church, organized in 1960 through a merger of the American Lutheran, the Evangelical Lutheran, and United Evangelical Lutheran denominations (see LUTHERANS IN NORTH AMERICA).
On the local level, the National Council has helped the state and community councils do work that would otherwise have been quite impossible. Through its Division of Home Missions, churches on wheels are provided for several hundred thousand migrant farm workers in some 30 states. Interdenominational committees of the Councils Division of Christian Education administer the preparation of Sunday school curriculum outlines used by thousands of church groups. The division also syndicates Sunday school lessons to newspapers and magazines through National Council Religious Features. The U.S. Army and Air Force are among the heaviest purchasers of National Council audiovisual materials on such varied subjects as premarital counseling, foreign missions, international church relief, and the training of youth leaders.
On the Councils yearly calendar are more than 20 religious observances, including a Universal Week of Prayer in January, Race Relations Sunday in February, World Day of Prayer on the First Friday of Lent, May Fellowship Day to foster closer relations among Christian Women, Rural Life Sunday on Rogation Sunday, Christian Education Week beginning the last Sunday in September to make people aware of Christian education responsibilities in the home, church and community, Communion Sunday in October, and Share-Our-Surplus Week during the Thanksgiving season.
Hundreds of religious radio and television broadcasts reach Americans through the Councils Broadcasting and Film Commission, and on the education front the National Council gives executive leadership to the United Christian Youth Movement, which embraces more than 10 million young people.
Among the hopes and prospects that the Council leadership has for the future, the most prominent is its desire to expand the work of reconciliation with religious bodies that do not belong to the Council. Such reconciliation, officials say, should first be made with Protestants and Orthodox who do not cooperate with the National Council, notably those in the Baptist and Lutheran tradition who are unsympathetic with unionism. Equally urgent is the felt need for collaboration with our brethren in the Roman Catholic tradition from whom we of both the Protestant and Orthodox traditions have been separated for long centuries. We must proceed on the assumption that all these who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour are brothers.
Underlying the external operations of the National Council is a theology of the Christian faith that sees in the ecumenical movement the rise of a second Reformation. On one hand, it recognizes that churches are steadily moving toward the goal of organic unity; but on the other hand it believes that this goal should be reached without sacrificing the values gained out of the first Reformation.
Bibliography: Sources pub. by the National Council include: Christian Scholar (quarterly), Commission on Christian Higher Education. Information Service (weekly), Bureau of Research and Survey. Memo (monthly), Commission on Christian Higher Education. National Council Outlook (monthly), Office of Public Relations. Newsletter (quarterly), Office for Councils of Churches. Publisher (bi-monthly), Office of Publication and Distribution. Religious Newsweekly (weekly), Office of Public Relations. Religious Radio and Television Newsletter (bi-monthly), Broadcasting and Film Commission. Rural Missions, Division of Foreign Missions. Together (quarterly), Division of Foreign Missions.
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