In the June 21, 2007 Chicago Sun-Times was an article on Barack Obama: “Presidential hopeful Barack Obama belongs to the United Church of Christ, one of the country’s most racially diverse and liberal Protestant denominations — the first to ordain an openly gay minister and to call for equal marriage rights for all people, regardless of gender. The UCC prides itself as being “out front” on social justice issues, battling civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights ahead of the mainstream. One Sunday hymnal equally celebrates male and female images of God.”?i Wikipedia says that the United Church of Christ has 1.2 million members and that individual churches have authority over doctrine.ii
I was curiouos. What does a bastion of Christian Liberality look like? So recently I went to a local UCC church to see this bastion of liberal Christianity promoting civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, abortion, and other issues. The church, called Pittsburgh Trinity looked like many other small churches. The service appeared very similar to Presbyterian and Lutheran services I have attended with a few exceptions. As far as similarities there was an opening prayer, announcements, scripture readings, numerous hymns from the New Century Hymnal and a sermon. The announcements included a reference to the upcoming Pentecost celebration as the birthday of the Church. Some prayers ended with “In Jesus’ name” while others were to the Creator. In the middle of the service was an infant baptism where the baby was dabbed with water in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The ending song, a “scattering song”, was full of references to being filled with the Holy Spirit and Jesus.
There were a few subtle differences: the opening prayer to the Lord of the Universe was credited as a prayer from an Islamic tradition. Perhaps because it was Memorial Day weekend or perhaps not, the children’s service was very secular. The only teaching to the kids was concerning the flag of the United States and how great it was to live in our great country. The sermon referred to Joshua 4:1-8 as an example of making a memorial and then focused on Memorial Day. The prayer hymn was America The Beautiful. Other than one comment that I’ll address below there wasn’t anything that wouldn’t be in many more conservative services.
There was a reference in support of Barack Obama’s comment to the Notre Dame students that concerning abortion we share a lot in common and we need to start there. This was obvious pro-choice support for a pro-choice president. But, other than that, in a church publicized for its openness to racial, civil, and sexual gender issues there were not any apparent hard-core activists in this particular church. This was an all white, mostly older population that looked comprised of conventional families. I’m sure that with more interaction there would be more discussion of these issues, but this church looked like any of a number of more conservative congregations that I’ve seen.
One thing that is remarkable to me is that, without researching beforehand, this church looks like so many churches where it is impossible to understand at first glance where the church stands on so many doctrines because the service looks so innocuous. And even with research, since each church is fairly autonomous, it is impossible to know where they stand without an in depth investigation into that particular church. I stopped to chat for just a minute with the pastor at the end of the service but with people milling out you can’t really get into anything, just “hi” and “thanks”
It really becomes easier to see how people slowly accept different doctrines over time because becoming part of a church is such a gradual process in so many instances. And churches look so alike with services that could almost be automatically interchanged between them.
(c) copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.