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'Fearfully and Wonderfully Made'
New York, November 18, 2005 – The National Council of Churches General Assembly meeting in Hunt Valley, Md., November 8-10, placed an important item on its 2006 agenda: a policy on human biotechnologies entitled, "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made."
After a session of generally friendly questions and suggestions, the Assembly voted unanimously to receive the policy for a first reading. The delegates will take the policy to their member communions for study and comment and will vote on a motion to adopt it at their next meeting in November 2006 in Orlando.
Clare J. Chapman, chair of the policy development committee, said the policy will supplement a 1986 biotechnologies policy that will be retained because it has useful language, including bioethics in the fields of agriculture. But developments in the field have "rapidly overtaken" the original statement and the new policy is necessary because of developments "unforeseen in 1986."
The policy is composed of three sections: "Our Theological Self-Understanding;" "The Church's Calling" in faith and science; and "Key Challenges for Church Engagement," including stem cell and embryonic stem cell research.
The policy concludes with six-part section on recommendations for the NCC, member communions, congregations, priests and pastors, seminaries and medical practitioners, health care professionals and researchers. The policy is intended to be forward-looking enough to provide moral and ethical guidance on developments in biotechnology that won't exist for years, Chapman said.
Complicated issues in biotechnology include stem cell research, cloning, alterations in the genes of fetuses to achieve desired hair and eye color, intelligence and other attributes, and many more.
Dr. Cynthia B. Cohen, who Chapman identified as one of the "senior sages" who guided the committee's work, was on hand Wednesday evening to receive the NCC's J. Irwin Miller Award for advancing ecumenism in the U.S. and around the world. In a preview of one of the issues the policy statement discusses, Cohen -- an Episcopal laywoman and professor of ethics at Georgetown University -- said the world faces a choice of whether it wants to preserve humanity as God created it or create a species of non-humans.
One of the recommendations for NCC action is a call to form a federal commission for the regulation and discussion of emerging biotechnologies.
Members of the policy development committee introduced sections of the policy to the Assembly.
Father Demetrios Demopulos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, said the church has a long-time partnership with science. "There is not a great war going on (between faith and science) but since the beginning of the church, science has been a tool of theology ... to better understand the world God has given us."
The policy statement is important, Demopulos said, because "we are to be faithful in our understanding of God -- we are responsible to bear witness, to be prophetic, to point out that things are not the way they ought to be."
The Rev. Bill Gaventa of American Baptist Churches in the USA noted that developments in biotechnologies have the potential of dramatically altering the lives of disabled persons but much reflection is required before deciding to make those changes.
"There are many perceptions and value judgments about the disabled," Gaventa said. "Do we use biotechnologies to change the condition or change the perception of that condition?"
A policy is needed to help the churches discern the theological as well as the scientific issues. "In a world of market-driven genetics, we may see life not as a gift but as custom-made," he said.
The Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith, who also serves on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, said she hoped the policy would generate the same interest as the WCC's "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" document.
"This is a very important document and I hope it can be made more popular in style," she said. One methodology for accomplishing that, she suggested, would be an intergenerational focus group.
The other members of the Policy Development Committee on Human Biotechnologies are:
Ms. Jacqueline Cho, Presbyterian Church (USA); Mrs. Blythe Crissman, United Methodist Church; Dr. Donald L. Cronkite, Reformed Church in America; Fr. Demetrios Demopulos, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; Fr. O.C. Edwards, Jr., The Episcopal Church; Rev. Dr. James Fenimore, United Methodist Church; Mr. Victor Cyrus-Franklin, Jr., United Methodist Church; Rev. Bill Gaventa, American Baptist Churches USA; Dr. Christine Gudorf, the Catholic Church; Mr. David Leslie, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon; Dr. Gerald McKenny, Presbyterian Church (USA); Bishop Serapion, Coptic Orthodox Church; Rev. Peter Sulyok, Presbyterian Church (USA); and Dr. Olivia MasihWhite, United Church of Christ.
The committee is staffed by the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, deputy general secretary of the NCC, and the Rev. Marcel A. Welty of the NCC staff.
Photos by Kathleen Cameron
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