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1997 NCC General Assembly, Nov. 11-14, 1997, Washington, D.C.

November 12, 1997 -- Day One
National Council of Churches General Assembly

Following is a synopsis of news from the first day of business of the National Council of Churches’ Nov. 12-14 annual General Assembly, meeting in Washington, D.C. The 270-member assembly is the highest governing body of the NCC and is made up of official delegates from the Councils’ 34 member communions (denominations), which in turn have 52 million members.

Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India Delegation is Seated

WASHINGTON, D.C., Nov. 12 ---- The National Council of Churches (NCC) today became an organization of 34 communions, up from 33.

The Rev. Dr. Bruce Robbins, Chair of the Membership and Ecclesial Relations Committee, introduced the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India, noting their “rich history dating back to Thomas the Apostle.”

A vote was then called, with each of the NCC’s 33 denominations voting “yes,” many “with joy.” The Greek Orthodox representative gave perhaps the most creative affirmative vote, saying, “We welcome this new church, who walks like us and looks like us, but is not us.”

There was then sustained applause as the five- member delegation from the newly accepted church, led by their head of communion, Bishop Zacharias Mar Theophilus, moved to the front of the assembly room to be officially seated as full members of the NCC.

“Personally, I do not welcome a stranger, since Bishop Zacharias and I have served together on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches,” said NCC President Melvin Talbert. “I greet you and welcome you in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ.”

Said Bishop Theophilus to the NCC General Assembly delegates, “I was thrilled when the communions said ‘yes.’ Without knowing us, but with faith and hope, you accepted us into this fellowship.”

“We were a founding member of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches of India and have been in full communion with the Anglican and Episcopal Church, but it took us a half a century to become members of the NCC,” he continued.

“The Mar Thoma Church dates back to the visit of St. Thomas to India during the first century. For the last 2,000 years in India we have witnessed and struggled,” Bishop Theophilus explained. This century, we became a diasporic church.”

Of the communion’s one million members worldwide, 30,000 are in the United States. Dispersed across 35 states with only 26 clergy and 37 parishes, many of them worship regularly at Episcopal Churches (the Mar Thoma Church is in full communion with the Anglican family).

“These members frequently worship once a month in a Mar Thoma service,” explained the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner, NCC Associate General Secretary for Christian Unity. “The problem is they don’t have enough priests to serve them. Clearly it’s a church on the rise in this country.”

The Mar Thoma Church has grown rapidly in recent years,” Bishop Theophilus added. According to their publication Mar Thoma Messenger, “Our identity is undergoing radical changes, from being a group of a few immigrants from India with Christian background to an established church with Eastern symbols and traditions.”

“I rejoice with them, that they have grown so substantially that they now have the capacity to join us,” said NCC General Secretary the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell. “They will deeply enrich the NCC and expand further its diversity.”

“Our church is an Eastern Church and is reformed in this tradition,” he said. “We are liturgical, Biblical, missionary and ecumenical. Some historians call our church a Bridge Church in India, and now we are a bridge from India to the United States.

“We come from a country familiar with pluralism, with a multi-religious and multi-cultural population but a secular government, so we have many things to learn from you and many things to share with you.”

In a later interview, Bishop Theophilus said his church’s decision to join the NCC came out of the belief that “the Church is never secluded or isolated. We wanted to become part of the ecumenical family here in the U.S.”

He said his church has appreciated many of the issues the NCC has taken up throughout its history, particularly its advocacy and development work relevant to Asia and other third world countries, such as the NCC’s support of a ban on the production and use of landmines and its support of the human and land rights of indigenous peoples.

“You need the fellowship of all the Churches to handle any of these kinds of issues,” Bishop Theophilus said.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Bishop Theophilus and Dr. Campbell exchanged gifts. Dr. Campbell offered him a chalice, which he accepted, saying it is “the most important gift since it is for the taking of communion.” Bishop Theophilus gave Dr. Campbell a brass bowl from India.

Churches Consider Their Response to Increased U.S. Religious Pluralism

WASHINGTON, D.C., Nov. 12 – The importance of interfaith relations cannot be overestimated among the issues facing contemporary Christians, a speaker told the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches today.

Dr. Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies and director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, reminded the delegates that many wars and conflicts of past and present have been fanned by religious communities.

“We as churches need to take the leadership in constructive dialogue,” she said. The United Methodist laywoman observed that the communities of the world are not just multi-cultural but multi- religious. “We need to work on the narrow and exclusivistic theologies that try to circle the wagons around God. God is not ours, but indeed we are God’s,” she asserted.

Dr. Eck’s presentation provided the context for the small group discussions that followed, during which General Assembly members offered their insights toward development of a new NCC policy statement on interfaith relations. They were asked to identify how inter-religious relationships most affect them and their churches, and what interfaith issues they think the policy statement must address.

The NCC’s Interfaith Relations Commission will present the proposed policy to the next General Assembly, in November 1998, for first reading, and for second reading and adoption in November 1999.

Another speaker, His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos, House of Cilicia, Armenian Apostolic Church, said that ecumenism, or interfaith relations, has been delegated too frequently in some churches to an elite – in some an elite made up of clergy and in others an elite made up of bishops.

“The whole people of God must become part and parcel of ecumenism,” he declared. As moderator of the World Council of Churches Central Committee, he urged identifying and redefining ecumenism. Collaboration with the Roman Catholic Church is an important aspect of this movement, he added. “We need local ecumenism, and we also need global ecumenism,” he urged and insisted that ecumenical dialogue must be flexible and relevant.

He said that ethical, moral and spiritual issues “are becoming more and more divisive” – more than doctrinal issues.

NCC and NCCB Exchange Greetings

WASHINGTON, D.C., Nov. 12 ---- High officials of the National Council of Churches and National Conference of Catholic Bishops affirmed the importance of their relationship today as they brought formal greetings on behalf of their organizations simultaneously to each others’ assemblies, meeting concurrently in Washington, D.C.

It was the first time for officers of the NCC and the NCCB to exchange greetings before their seated assemblies – meeting by rare and happy circumstance in the same city during the same week. NCC and NCCB officials meet frequently in other settings, and Cardinal Keeler spoke at the November 1993 installation service of the Rev. Dr. Gordon Sommers as NCC President for 1994-95.

Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, NCCB Vice President, addressed the NCC’s General Assembly, whose 270 delegates represent 34 communions (denominations) with a combined membership of 52 million Protestant and Orthodox Christians.

He sounded a millennial theme, proclaiming, “The celebration of the Great Jubilee Year 2000 is a wonderful and graced opportunity for Christian Churches to advance together on the path towards the unity Christ desires among those who confess to believe in Him.”

He encouraged Christians across the nation to prepare for the Jubilee with ecumenical prayer services, other joint celebrations and common social projects.

At the same hour, across town, the NCC’s President, United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, and President Elect for 1998-99, Episcopal Bishop Craig Anderson, spoke to the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. “It is truly by God’s grace that we are here,” declared Bishop Talbert. Said Bishop Anderson, “We are all related, all brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Excerpts: NCC General Secretary Joan B. Campbell’s Report to the Assembly

“This morning we received into membership the 34th member communion. The Mar Thoma Church, with its roots in the ancient Christian community of Kerala in India, deepens our diversity….Dare we allow them, in the words of Paul to Timothy, to stir into flame the faith that is already in us? Is this moment not like the moment of baptism when we rejoice with the newly baptized and in the process reaffirm our own baptism? The baptismal vows remind us of our special status as children of a God who loves us. The promise to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called newly claims us! So I say to those who have been with the Council for these 48 years, dare to see again the vision of unity through the untarnished eyes of these newly ‘baptized.’ Let our vision be large, whole and embracing….

“Each of us our churches has gifts as well as challenges….These gifts of the Spirit given to each church are not to hold as private possessions, but gifts given in trust for the good of all. They are gifts to contribute, not to isolate nor to secure special privilege. Gifts that are Spirit-given are always incomplete if held in isolation. This is the essence of ecumenical theology, essential for ecumenical understanding. For the ecumenical movement to be faithful, there must be gifts that differ that are then shared to build up the body of Christ. In this assembly, we will three times sit together ecumenically (rather than as communion delegations). This is not just a process decision, but to help us discern the gifts of each to all. Perhaps our most important ecumenical question ought to be: How can each prepare best to receive the gifts of the other? How, together, can we be of service to the whole? How can we join our gifts in such a way that we bear witness in the public arena to a God who loves us? What a difference it would make if these were our questions….

“Two years ago, your predecessor body, the General Board, put in place principles, guidance and structured proposals for a transformed Council….The sought-after transformation will require a sustained dedication to nurturing a broader ecumenical vision in the life of the Council as well as in relationship with many in the Christian Community who have not been participants in the nearly 50 years of our conciliar ecumenical effort.

“But there are signs that bode well for increased cooperation. I would be bold and claim that the cold war between the National Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals has ended. Don Argue and I consult regularly. We meet several times a year with Cardinal Keeler and this morning the NCC’s heads of communion set in motion a proposal for a Summit on Racial Justice and Reconciliation to be held in January 1999 jointly with the NAE and the National Black Evangelical Association….”

NCC General Assembly Acts on National Ministries Concerns

NO BARRIERS FOR DEAF PEOPLE IN CHURCHES:

A new NCC policy that reveals the barriers that make church settings inaccessible to Deaf and hard of hearing people and offers recommendations for change received unanimous final approval on second reading Nov. 12 by the Council’s General Assembly.

Points from the policy include:

“Christians have believed and taught from the very beginning that God is the Creator of all people, that Jesus came to save all people, and that the Holy Spirit gives gifts to all people. And yet we know that over time, the Church has grown and continues to grow in its understanding of this inclusive doctrine.”

“Deaf Christians are painfully aware that over 27 million Deaf or hard of hearing persons in North America (“The Deaf Nation”) find church doors partially or completely closed to them.” Perhaps less than 10 percent of the deaf community are churched.

Deaf and hard of hearing people do not make up a homogenous community. Some bond with a common community and participate in a common culture (called Deaf culture). The language of this culture is American Sign Language, an indigenous sign language that is historically and structurally distinct from English.

A second group of audiologically deaf or hard of hearing people use a form of signing structurally based on English, and tend to share values with both Deaf and hearing worlds and to have contacts in both communities. There also are people who have hearing losses – developed typically in later life – who continue to identify with the values and cultures of hearing persons.

The policy includes ample recommendations for reaching out to each of these three groups.

ORGAN, TISSUE DONATION:

The General Assembly of the National Council of Churches, during its annual meeting here, passed its first resolution supporting organ and tissue transplantation.

The measure, presented by Dr. Clive Callender, chief of surgery at Howard University Hospital, commits the NCC to working on education and awareness about transplantation, encouraging its member communions to the same, using educational materials available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and, through an amendment, initiating a study of the ethical implications of marketing human organs and transplant tissue to be reported back next year.

Dr. Callender reminded delegates that it is illegal to buy or sell organs or tissue in the United States, but indicated that he was aware of the practice in some other countries. In presenting the resolution, he noted that the national Minority Organ and Tissue Transplantation Education Program (MOTTEP) had proven its effectiveness, more than tripling the percentage of African Americans who had signed up as potential donors.

CHURCHES AND PUBLIC EDUCATION:

A first reading was given a proposed policy on public education that urges “a national crusade to save the public schools and to bring all children the abundant life which ought by rights be theirs as children of God.”

The proposed policy, which makes several points and offers suggestions for church action at several levels, will come before next year’s General Assembly for a vote.

“The public schools are the primary route for most children—especially the children of poverty— into full participation in our economic, political, and community life,” says the report which also calls the public schools “a cornerstone of our democracy.” It mentions attacks on public education by people representing religious, cultural and economic views which offer little or no support for public schooling.

Several delegates, while expressing support for the document in general, took exception to language that would totally bar the use of use of public money for any non-public education.

Dr. Bennett W. Smith Sr., president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention and pastor of St. James Church in Buffalo, N.Y., said there is a trend to push minority children who are slow learners for whatever reason into special education where they do not receive the education they need.

He established a Christian day school four years ago for special education children who are now performing above grade level, and eighth graders are reading at college level. The school, using retired school teachers, has achieved so much success that it has attracted the children of professionals.

The Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson of the Reformed Church in America said, “We do not exist in a situation where the same options are available to the poor as to the affluent.” He suggested adding a provision to the policy that would allow public money to be used for limited scholarships and limited experiments with choice in urban situations.

Shannon Clarkson of the United Church of Christ urged addition to the statement of some material on charter schools that had been prepared as part of a theological basis for the policy statement.

Peg Chemberlin of the Minnesota Council of Churches noted that the strong stand against vouchers would make working with Roman Catholics at the state level more difficult. She also asked that the NCC keep in mind that much education policy occurs at the state and local level.

CLEMENCY FOR LEONARD PELTIER:

The NCC supported clemency for Leonard Peltier, a Native American sentenced to two life terms following the Pine Ridge Reservation confrontation between 35 American Indians and more than 150 combat-armed law enforcement agents. The resolution was presented by Dennis Banks, national field director of the American Indian Movement.

CHURCHES AND DISABILITIES:

A proposed NCC policy statement on disabilities received its first reading. One asked for contextual analysis, where we are now in working for a better future (Kim Jefferson) Another asked for it to touch more the grassroots.

PAPER USE:

The General Assembly also resolved to save trees by recycling and other measures.

Installation of Bishop Craig B. Anderson as NCC President for 1998-99

WASHINGTON, D.C., Nov. 12 ---- The National Council of Churches new president, Episcopal Bishop Craig B. Anderson, was installed at a service at the Washington National Cathedral this evening.

Earlier in the day, Ambassador and Civil Rights Leader Andrew Young of the United Church of Christ and the Rev. Elenora Giddings Ivory of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), were elected President-Elect and Vice-President for National Ministries, respectively. Ambassador Young will serve in the office of NCC President Elect in 1998- 99 and as NCC President in 2000-01. Rev. Giddings Ivory will serve through 1999.

The installation service included many elements representative of the diversity of the NCC which Bishop Anderson will serve for the next two years.

The local Washington Conference Choir of the Second Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church performed two anthems. The Epistle Lesson was read by Dr. Zacharias Mar Theophilus, Bishop of the Mar Thoma Church, a newly elected full member communion of the NCC.

The Rev. Robert Two Bulls of the Ogala Sioux Nation in Red Shirt Table, S.D., sang a Lakota Honoring Song. Bishop Anderson served as the eighth Bishop of the Diocese of South Dakota for nine years and counts this time as crucial to his spiritual development.

Bishop Vinton Anderson , Bishop of the 2nd Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Church, preached a challenging sermon based on the Gospel Lesson, which was the “good Samaritan” story from Luke 10:25-37.

Entitled “When Neglect Becomes Violence,” Bishop Vinton Anderson said that in the parable from Luke 10, “we find the sufficient basis for the challenge Bishop Craig Anderson will face as President of the NCC.”

He pointed out that the victimization of the human family through acts of violence is being addressed in his denomination and ecumenical organizations like the World Council of Churches. The man who is beaten in the Luke story “could be anyone, man, woman or child,” he said.

“We in the Church must pay special attention to neglect becoming violence,” he challenged. “The Church does nothing about the victimization of neglect. We rationalize our inaction, declaring it against our policy or principles to get involved.”

Just as any of us could be the victim in the parable, “any of us can be guilty of violence by neglect,” he continued.

“Our advanced technological society leaves too many victims” by neglect, Bishop Vinton Anderson preached. “The globalization of business and industry impacts developing nations and robs natural resources as well as robbing indigenous people of their land rights. The few and the rich benefit at the expense of the many and the poor” from this system.

“Jericho roads still exist, and we are the new priest and the new Levite,” he said. “We dare not pass by on the other side of the road.”

“In the days ahead, we will listen for the voice of Craig Anderson,” he said. “He brings a devoted spirituality, the gift of pastoral care and a social consciousness. Like the parable, he reminds us that everyone is a neighbor. We will wish our President to lead us to serious action” rather than the inaction of neglect.

Following Bishop Craig Anderson’s vows of installation, in which he promised to build and strengthen the ecumenical community and to uphold the member communions in prayer, and a litany of installation in which the NCC General Assembly delegates accepted him, outgoing President Bishop Talbert presented the Cross to incoming President Bishop Anderson.

“It has been my distinct honor to wear this mantle of responsibility,” Bishop Talbert said. “Now I give it to you. May God’s blessed grace, peace and strength” be with you.

Newly installed President Anderson made some brief comments before his final blessing. After thanks to the Cathedral, Choir and others, he said, “It is not by accident that I chose the Washington National Cathedral for my installation. It is a House of Prayer for all people. Also, it is the National Cathedral and we are the National Council of Churches. This Cathedral overlooks our nation’s Capitol, for which we pray. Its mission is to provide a clear, forceful, compelling articulation of the Gospel, so that we might not neglect but we might remember and we might serve.

“Our vision must spread to this Capitol and to the world God sustains and loves.”


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