The much-diminished National Council of Churches is closing its headquarters in New York City, a building that also housed the offices of the other major ecumenical Protestant denominations. Leaving the building once hailed as the “Protestant Vatican” and the “God Box,” the NCC is moving to Washington, D.C., where it will share an office with the Methodists. Mark Tooley, writing in the American Spectator, reports on the move and includes some trenchant analysis of why liberal Protestantism has declined. This is especially noteworthy since some ostensible evangelicals want to adopt the same strategy.
From Mark Tooley:
The once prestigious and now nearly bankrupt National Council of Churches is quitting its famous New York headquarters built with largesse from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and whose cornerstone was laid by President Dwight Eisenhower. Down to a handful of staffers, the NCC will consolidate into the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
“It is important that we honor this moment with reverence and respect for the Council’s history as an iconic presence in the beloved ‘God Box,’” explained NCC President Kathryn Lohre in a press release. “It is equally important that we look with hope upon this new chapter in the Council’s life.” Last year, Lohre had told her board that the NCC faced an “ecumenical winter.” Her chilly prophecy is being fulfilled.
Searching for a positive spin, another NCC official declared: “The critical NCC policy work can be coordinated from any location but to be the prophetic ‘voice of the faithful’ on the ground in the places of power, it is best served by establishing our operations in Washington.” It’s not likely that the much-diminished NCC will be making a big political splash on Capitol Hill, where it has long maintained an office in the Methodist Building.
Such demise for the NCC could not have been foreseen in 1960 when the Interchurch Center, once called the “Protestant Vatican on the Hudson,” first opened on the upper west side of Manhattan next to Grant’s Tomb and Columbia University. More specifically the “God Box,” which originally housed dozens of denominational offices, is next door to architecturally magnificent Riverside Church, also built by the Rockefellers, and Union Seminary, collectively representing the once formidable but now faded power of Mainline Protestantism.
At the Interchurch Center’s 1960 dedication, a German Lutheran bishop presciently warned against the “institutionalization” of churches, noting that a beautiful building and organization were of “no avail without true faith.” Initially the NCC occupied four floors of the 19 story, $21 million imposing midrise that overlooks the Hudson River. The Methodists, Presbyterians, American Baptists, and Reformed Church in America, among others, also based their offices there. . . .
Ironically, nearly all the Mainline denominations housed there would begin their nearly 50-year membership decline just a few years later. A sanitized Protestantism without doctrine or distinctions simply became too boring to sustain. In the early 1960s, about one of every six Americans belonged to the seven largest Mainline denominations. Today, it’s one out of every 15. . . .
The mainstream, Mainline Protestantism that Ike, himself a Presbyterian, embodied began its decline into radicalism in the mid 1960s, mostly in reaction to the Vietnam War. No longer moored to a firm theology, groups like the NCC were easily susceptible to take-over by radical activists. And having tied themselves to American culture and modern secularism, they were ever anxious to stay abreast of the latest social and political fad, primarily from the perspective of New York-based elites.
So why are some evangelical/conservative Christians wanting to jettison doctrines and distinctions and tying themselves to American culture, modern secularism, and the latest social and political fads?