Diversity and Identity
The other day I shared an experience that I had while visiting the chapel on the campus of John Carroll University, a Catholic school, which caused me to reflect on a number of things related to my own denomination, the United Church of Christ.
If there's one thing that many UCCers like to be known for, it's our diversity. That's how we started, after all. The Evangelical Synod of North America, the Reformed Church in the United States, Congregational churches (you know them better as Pilgrims or Puritans), and the Christian Churches all eventually came together in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ.
These churches each brought with them their own ideas about theology, worship, and organization. While they all had been influenced by the Reformed tradition stemming from the likes of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, they each had their own take on various things. The Evangelical Synod, for instance, gave the pastor much more authority in its churches than the Congregationalists, who asserted that the congregation (hence its name) had ultimate authority. Congregationalists tended to meet in plain meetinghouses devoid of much religious symbology such as stained glass windows, while some churches Reformed in background didn't retain that belief from Calvin that such things were idolatrous and distracting from the word preached. The Christian churches tended to take its cues from the revivalist worship of the Methodists and Baptists, while the other three were quite a bit more buttoned-down in religious expression.
And then when it was time for these four denominations to come together and discuss how they were going to be one united church, that was a whole new argument. The Evangelical and Reformed churches were used to a much more hierarchical form of governance, while the Congregationalists insisted that each local church could do its own thing, setting its own policies for worship, governance, calling pastors, and so on. Ultimately, the new denomination borrowed a little from both: the Congregationalists' philosophy of local church autonomy was retained and is perhaps one of the most often invoked clauses from the UCC Constitution and By-Laws, but we see more of the representative decision-making aspects of the Reformed in denominational meetings such as General Synod...which still ultimately can be turned down or ignored by local churches.
So, you see, the UCC started as a diverse entity, and still encourages quite a bit of diversity and autonomy today. You can visit a UCC church in one town that is Open and Affirming to LGBT people and observes a "high church" Episcopal-style worship service, and then you can travel 10 miles down the road to another UCC church that declares homosexuality a sin and has a praise band. As determined by our congregational polity, there isn't much regulation of how each church conducts itself, and this allows for quite a variety of religious and theological expression across the denomination.
None of this is bad. That's not what I'm getting at. Ideally, most people can find a church home in the United Church of Christ, barring geographical and other limitations. Diversity might be one of the true marks of denominational identity that we can claim and, in fact, that's exactly what the UCC has been doing the past decade or so via its "God is Still Speaking" campaign, declaring that "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here." Some more conservative factions have declared this code for certain liberal causes, but on the surface, this is all about diversity: explore the UCC, you'll be welcome among us somewhere.
My experience at John Carroll caused me to think a little about Catholic identity in contrast. The first person I saw in the chapel was a young woman praying the rosary, a common prayer practice in that tradition. Three others were sitting near the front just taking in the space for a few moments, a practice that to my knowledge is considered acceptable and encouraged in many Catholic churches. Two others wandered in later, kneeling at their pew before sitting down. All of these practices are observed and encouraged across Catholicism, and here in this space among this age group, they were still being practiced.
In the UCC, individual churches and people may do things like this. No doubt, some UCC churches actively encourage prayer practices and have cultivated a rich ethos of spiritual exploration. Many others, however, may be holding on to the old "civic religion" philosophy of the mainlines' glory days where such things are best not talked about or, perhaps they adhere to the buttoned-down style of some of our predecessors where, hopefully, some form of piety is being practiced...but is still best not talked about.
Another possibility for a lack of much spiritual cultivation may be that emphasis on autonomy. Again, autonomy in and of itself isn't bad, but at times it seems to be used as a form of resisting exploring beliefs or practices, i.e., "You can't push this on me" or "We can't encourage this too much or it'll seem like pushing." As a result, spirituality in our denomination can seem quite loose in practice and gooey in philosophy, with no real deepening understanding of...much of anything, really.
This translates to our affiliated colleges and universities. As mentioned in that previous post, Heidelberg had a nominal connection to the UCC at best: other than a small framed picture of the UCC symbol in the campus center and a sparsely-attended UCC ministry group, there wasn't much of a presence on campus. Meanwhile, the Campus Crusade-affiliated group was the most prominent campus ministry by far. There are numerous reasons for that, but I wonder what more could be done on the denomination's end to increase its presence there.
Here's my point: the UCC is a diverse place, and this is a blessing. However, the high value that we place on it may at the same time place quite a bit of limitation on what we can teach and encourage one another to practice, and we may be starving ourselves of quite a bit of spiritual growth as a result. If nothing else, my hope would be that local churches could do more to encourage active and even passionate expressions of faith, whether theological discussion, spiritual disciplines, justice advocacy, Biblical study, well-crafted worship, or whatever else. But whatever you're good at, it's important to define why you're doing it theologically and to encourage a passionate exploration of the whats and whys among younger members in particular.
It does nobody much good to never venture a particular identity or mode of expression in the name of autonomy; to always allow concern that you'll somehow be squelching someone else's growth rule the day. In my view, it's the opposite: you'll be squelching growth by never even attempting any way to encourage growth.
So maybe there isn't an official "UCC identity" when it comes to certain things, but there are still plenty of ways (and there is plenty of need) to cultivate an identity within the UCC.