National Council of Churches at Fifty: Does it Have a Future?

Gathering in Cleveland to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the National Council of Churches, ecumenical leaders instead found themselves grappling with financial woes and facing the potential collapse of the organization itself.

Organizers of the NCC’s “50th Anniversary Fete” had hoped for 2,000 persons to attend their birthday party, but far less than 1,000 registered for the event, and most of them seemed to question the continued usefulness of the Council, long known for its liberal theology and radical positions on social issues.

In essence, the National Council of Churches is a period piece that has run its course. The NCC was formed in 1950 as ecumenical church leaders met in Cleveland to establish a successor to the venerable Federal Council of Churches under the banner, “This Nation Under God.” Their vision was a united council of Christian denominations. The reality was a religious bureaucracy quickly known for its leftward leanings and fiscal irresponsibility.

In the heady days of American nationalism after World War II, leaders of the larger Protestant denominations desired to consolidate a mass movement of mainstream Christian church life behind a vision of a Christianized America. Founded by representatives of 29 denominations, the NCC eventually claimed 35 denominations including the United Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and four Orthodox bodies.

The formation of the NCC represented the high water mark of liberal Protestantism, and the movement looked invincible. In actuality, it was built upon a very weak foundation, and it never included the majority of congregations in the United States. Groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Presbyterian Church in America refrained from any participation in the Council. Conservatives had established the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942, and most were never tempted to join the NCC.

In its prime years, the NCC looked every bit the religious establishment it aspired to be. Its headquarters at 475 Riverside Drive in New York City was situated on land donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who also built the adjacent Riverside Church as a ecumenical cathedral of Protestant liberalism. Its stodgy architecture was intended to make a statement about permanence. The real architectural statement was ugliness, and the building became known as the “God Box” even by its friends.

As a symbol of the new post-war establishment, the NCC secured President Dwight D. Eisenhower (described by presidential historian William Lee Miller as a “fervent believer in a very vague religion”) as its dedicatory speaker. The movement appeared so large and mainstream that Samuel McCrae Cavert, the NCC’s first general secretary, boasted: “It could fairly be described as the central stream of church life in America, other than Roman Catholic.”

Conservatives had another vision of the NCC, calling it an “ecclesiastical octopus” threatening to choke the autonomy of the churches and impose its vision of a lowest-common-denominator theology. Over the last 50 years, most NCC member bodies have suffered a dramatic loss in membership.

By the time of the Council’s formation, liberal trends in theology were fully apparent in the member churches. Participation in the larger World Council of Churches further compromised the NCC’s meager doctrinal foundation of belief in “Jesus Christ as the Divine Lord and Savior.” With a leadership known for questioning the deity of Christ and affirming universalism, the NCC was soon recognized as a haven for liberal theology.

Seeking to establish a common Bible translation, the NCC sponsored the development of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) in 1952. The translation became popular in the nation’s liberal divinity schools, but was never trusted by conservatives.

In later decades the NCC would make headlines by coming to the defense of radical figures such as anarchist Angela Davis, supporting the Panama Canal treaty, defending the African National Congress, opposing the Vietnam war, and for promoting the use of “inclusive language” for both human beings and God.

The Cleveland “50th Anniversary Fete” turned out to be a rather strange mix of self-congratulation and self-flagellation. Saddled with a $4-million budget deficit, the Council’s leaders struggled to agree on a spending plan-even as they spent over $750,000 on the anniversary celebration. Angered over charges of financial mismanagement, the Orthodox bodies stopped making financial contributions some time ago. This year, the United Methodist Church suspended payment of $340,000 in annual dues until the financial issues are settled.

NCC leaders hope that new officers will bring credibility. Retiring general secretary Joan Brown Campbell is to be succeeded by former Rep. William Edgar, a United Methodist. Former Ambassador Andrew Young, a member of the United Church of Christ, is to be installed as the group’s new president. Neither seemed to underestimate the challenges faced by the Council. One of the first actions taken in Cleveland was the elimination of 34 jobs from the Council’s staff of 120.

Leaders of the Association for Church Renewal, a network of evangelical renewal organizations within the member denominations, released a statement just prior to the Cleveland meeting calling for the NCC to disband. “The NCC is a hindrance to the cause of Christian unity,” charged James Heidinger II, president of Good News, a renewal movement among United Methodists.

The new general secretary called the NCC a “35-hump camel,” and compared the Council to a man with one foot over a cliff. Even the outgoing general secretary seemed to doubt that the NCC could survive. Joan Brown Campbell predicted, however, that a new body would emerge, which would include evangelicals and Roman Catholics as well as the liberal Protestants and Orthodox bodies.

With that unlikely prospect in view, the Cleveland celebration was a rather odd affair. The NCC looks like a ship taking on much water, but unwilling to change course. Having bargained away their theological integrity for the hope of social influence, the NCC and its declining member bodies are left arguing over the budget and lamenting the loss of old dreams.