Got news? Adios to God the Father?

Gentle readers, you would be amazed at the amount of public relations materials that, day after day, people send via email to your GetReligionistas. Almost all of this stuff comes from people who clearly have never even looked at this website or paid any attention to what we do here.

For example, publicists and writers constantly offer to send us religious-market books so that we can review them for our readers.

OK, raise your hand if you have ever read a book review on this weblog, a review written by a GetReligion scribe (let alone a book full of, let’s say, Bible commentaries or born-again testimonies).

There should be no hands up at this stage, because we don’t write book reviews. We have — I could probably count them on one hand — written a few posts about reviews of books that have been published in mainstream news publications. We do this if we think these books and reviews would be of interest to professional journalists who cover news linked to religion.

We also get waves of PR emails about denominational events and the activities — left and right — of groups that blend faith and political activism.

One of the most active public-relations groups in this field, on the religious right, holds itself up as a kind of religion-news agency — Christian Newswire. Many of these PR releases simply promote the views of this or that author of church leader, with the hopes that journalists will call them up and get a quotation or what not.

It seems that I spike about 100 emails from this group a day, most of them unopened.

However, one arrived today that caught my eye because — gasp — it contained a real, live news hook worth of mainstream coverage. The release proclaimed:

Meeting at General Synod 28 in Tampa, Florida this weekend — July 1-5, 2011 — the historic United Church of Christ will vote on an amendment to eliminate God the Father from Article 5, lines 9-10 of its constitution (pdf).

The Constitution of the denomination has remained unchanged in its theological core since the United Church of Christ’s founding in 1957, and remains the covenant connection with the basic truths of Christianity that keeps many churches affiliated who are otherwise alienated by the denominations very liberal agenda.

At this point, the organization behind this public-relations effort becomes perfectly clear:

According to renewal leader David Runnion-Bareford, “Rejecting God as Father in an age of fatherlessness is unthinkable. God acted toward us in amazing grace when He offered to be our Father through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ who offers us life in his name. This is not something we as humans made up in some other time. Rejecting our Father is act of arrogant rebellion in the name of cultural conformity that only further alienates members, churches, but more importantly God himself. We call the delegates to reject the change for God’s sake.”

You get the picture. This is a small, vocal conservative group that continues to struggle inside the boundaries of the super Congregationalist and freewheeling United Church of Christ, the small, declining, yet vocal denomination that represents the left edge of the old mainline Protestant world.

So is this a mainstream news story? I would say that it is, since editing the ancient Christian creeds is a highly symbolic act — even for flocks as hyper-Protestant as the UCC. Of course, this denomination also serves as the home base for a very articulate and important layperson — President Barack Obama.

But is this a mainstream news story? We will have to see if the event draws coverage. The proposed change has not, as I write these lines, been noted in an advance story of any kind in publications that show up in Google News. The denomination also is not calling attention to this debate (at least not that I can find) on its news website.

However, the Christian Wire release did contain a URL to the document and its proposed change at the heart of the Holy Trinity. It reads:

ARTICLE V. LOCAL CHURCHES

9 The basic unit of the life and organization of the United Church of Christ is the Local Church.

10 A Local Church is composed of persons who, believing in the triune God as heavenly Father, and accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and depending on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are organized for Christian worship, for the furtherance of Christian fellowship, and for the ongoing work of Christian witness.

11 In accordance with the custom and usage of a Local Church, persons become members by (a) baptism and either confirmation or profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; (b) reaffirmation or re-profession of faith; or (c) letter of transfer or certification from other Christian churches.

So we ask, “Got news?” Is this a mainstream news story?

If the UCC matters, this is a major news story. We will see.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mark

    deleting mention of the God the Father but retaining wording about “the triune God,” Jesus and the Spirit?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Sounds like I got out in time.

    “Super Congregationalist”? The historic Congregationalist giants must be turning in their graves.

  • Mike O.

    This doesn’t seem like a mainstream story to me. I think to be mainstream it would have to either impact the secular world, or within the religious sphere be a major change in practice or tenets that would be of interest to people.

    The change looks minor and doesn’t seem to indicate a significant alteration (if any) as to what the UCC believes. Of course, we don’t know the reason behind the change because the press release was just shy of a Facebook comment.

  • Bram

    The media should ask the President what he thinks about all this. They will certainly be asking his Republican opponents all sorts of questions about their religious views and those of their denominations.

  • Justin

    Although I think it’s a mistake to make no mention of God the Father, I can’t say that I disagree with changing the wording of the article. The phrase “believing in the triune God as heavenly Father” makes it sound as if the entire Trinity is the Father.

  • carl

    The actions of a liberal church are generally considered news only to the extent that they represent a significant defeat for the conservative opposition. One of the dirty little secrets about liberal religion is that secularists use it as a Cat’s Paw against more traditional forms of religion. Secularists have no interest in liberal religion beyond that utility, and certainly don’t see any value in its blessings of behavior. Since the UCC is already a thoroughly liberalized church, it’s actions don’t much matter to the wider conflict.

    Journalists write for their audience, and their (perceived) audience doesn’t want to hear about liberals religionists doing liberal things. That audience wants to hear about conservatives losing the fight. They are looking for re-enforcement of the idea that their preferred worldview is winning. That means the coverage goes to the front lines of the conflict. The Democratic presidential candidate doesn’t spend much time campaigning in Massachusetts. He considers it secure terrain. Likewise newspapers don’t talk much about cultural victories already won. They move on to where the conflict is still raging.

    I suppose that’s why this man is so desperate to drum up some coverage. He is like a Japanese soldier left behind in the jungle during WWII. He continues the fight, but no one notices, and his efforts are hopeless.

    carl

  • Jerry

    So we ask, “Got news?” Is this a mainstream news story?

    If the UCC matters, this is a major news story. We will see.

    I don’t see it being a major news story at all. Certainly there’s a theological difference, but when has a change in theology made it to page 1 or a lead in the nightly news unless something else is involved?

  • Roberto

    No one gives a fig about the UCC — I’m not even sure the UCC gives a fig about what it does. They are small and growing smaller every year; they lack the cachet of ECUSA; and most Americans have never heard of the UCC, at least not in the sense they are familiar with words like “Methodist” and “Presbyterian.”

    Even by “Godbeat” standards there’s not much here: no follower of the beat can claim to be surprised at this turn of events.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: They are small and growing smaller every year; they lack the cachet of ECUSA; and most Americans have never heard of the UCC, at least not in the sense they are familiar with words like “Methodist” and “Presbyterian.”

    I think most Americans have heard of ‘Congregationalists’ or ‘New England Puritans’, though, and the UCC is (in at least some sense) the descendant of that lineage.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I think it should be a major mainstream story because it is a clear look at the direction all mainstream Proestantism is going. One of these days I would like to see an honest story in the media that–for all the problems the Catholic Church has–looks at these radical changes of ditching God The Father, gay marriage and clergy, abortion,etc. as the Protestant Reformation entering its final years of decay.
    Instead the focus in the media is usually on those who are advocating and promoting radical change in the various Protestant churches. The story spin, of course, is that the church radicals are the wave of the future and if a church wants to survive it had better throw away everything it has ever believed and taught.

  • Bram

    Pulling together proceeding comments from Roberto, Hector, and Deacon John, the big under-covered religion story of which this item is a small but representative piece is the decline of the Protestant mainline — its decline in membership and national significance and its not-unrelated decline into theological and intellectual decay. If you had told anyone a hundred or two hundred or three hundred years ago that the Puritan legacy would wither to the point that almost no one gave much of a darn about a church like the UCC, and that a church like the UCC would be making ad hoc and intellectually vapid theological revisions on the basis of secular-political life-style trends, then anyone would have thought it a very big deal. The fact that we presently don’t only goes to show bad a job the press tends to do in placing day to day stories in a longer term historical frames.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    No one will cover it because it is a straight theology story. Secular press doesn’t know how to handle it. No sex. No politics. No coverage.

  • http://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    It looks as though they are going mainstream, but deleting modalistic monarchianism from their constitution.

    Modlaistic Monarchianism is the heresy that believes that the triune God is God the Father.

    Perhaps someone pointed that out to them.

  • Elijah

    Hector, I am a direct descendant of the first congregationalists, and I can tell you most people don’t give a hoot. Most people don’t even know what a ‘congregationalist’ is in the first place. And there is a heckuva chasm between the New England Puritan unitarianism of 1635 and the UCC jellyfish theology of today.

  • Martha

    It’s not necessarily mainstream (as yet) but it is interesting; why change the phrasing to remove God the Father, yet retain the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity, and bring in a new reference to the “triune God”?

    What is so offensive or ill-judged about God the Father? Is this some kind of Modalism, as Steve says: that Father, Son and Spirit are not distinct Persons but rather aspects of one God? Or some kind of modernised Arianism, where Jesus is an Exalted Man or Secondary Creation, the Spirit is just a hand-wavy way of talking about ‘warm fuzzy feelings’ and God is a nice, benign, but vague entity not to be identified with Blake’s Nobodaddy, the ogre of the Old Testament?

  • Martha

    I really don’t get what they’re trying to achieve:

    Original wording:

    “10 A Local Church is composed of persons who, believing in God as heavenly Father, and accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and depending on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are organized for Christian worship, for the furtherance of Christian fellowship, and for the ongoing work of Christian witness.”

    Proposed revision:

    “A Local Church is composed of persons who, believing in the triune God, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and depending on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are organized for Christian worship, for the furtherance of Christian fellowship, and for the ongoing work of Christian witness.”

    It does make me wonder that if this goes through, would further work on the clauses relating to Jesus and the Spirit then be put forward? Maybe some definition of the local church as organised for fellowship, worship and witness but with no or only a general reference to “God” or “Christian”?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I assumed that it was found offensive to those who prefer to regard God as Mother, or “Father-Mother”, or gender-unattributed entity. I admit it seems puzzling why they didn’t change the whole thing to one of the trendy substitutes like “Creator Redeemer and Sanctifier”.

  • Bram

    What I’m wondering is how the UCC and other liberal Christian groups are going to surmount the stumbling block of God having been incarnate as a man and not as a woman. It seems almost inevitable that they will have to formally codify the “arguments” (i.e. the wishful thinking) already being proposed that Christ was a *homosexual* man — which, presumably, would make His being a man at all OK in a way that it otherwise would never be. Or perhaps they will go even further, toward a transgendered Jesus — The Daughter of God The Mother deigning to take on the body of a man, albeit of a homosexual man.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    So, people would not be interested in a story with the headline:

    Obama’s denomination drops God the father?

    Or words to that effect?

    Or

    Former Puritan flock drops, etc?

  • carl

    19. tmatt

    Both of your examples illustrate the point that by itself the UCC is of no newsworthy interest. You had to subtly shift the story to grab the reader’s attention.

    Obama’s denomination drops God the father?

    This makes the story about President Obama and not his denomination. Sure, people will be interested in a religious story that relates to the President. Their interest will focus on the implications for the President and not on the doctrine of the UCC.

    Former Puritan flock drops

    This is almost an act of bait-and-switch. If I saw that headline, I would begin reading the article to find out what it was about. I would be asking “Who are these declining former Puritans?” When I discovered it was about the UCC, I would roll my eyes, feel manipulated, and turn to the Comics. The UCC is so far removed from the Puritans that no credible connection exists anymore.

    carl

  • Bram

    Without a broader historical context, there’s no “there” here.

    The headline says essentially:

    “Handful of Rich, White, Northeastern Liberals Still Going To Church”

    The only short-term news is that there’s even a handful left.

  • FzxGkJssFrk

    I do think that “Obama’s denomination drops God the Father” would hook a lot of readers.

    A clever writer could play off that headline by contrasting Obama’s recent Father’s Day address.

  • Bram

    Proposed headline:

    No (God the) Fatherhood for President This (Sun)Day

  • http://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    Reading it again, it looks to me like an attempt to manufacture news.

    They’re dropping unitarian, and becoming Trinitarian, that’s all.

    The original version said nothing about the trinity, but said that God was the heavenly Father. That’s Unitarian.

    So now they believe in the triune God, who, as everyone knows, is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    Fair enough, but even the demons believe, and tremble.

    So they go on to say that they “accept” Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. A bit evangelical and wishy-washy, but “accept” is a bit different from mere “believing” in God, like believing in a nebula several light centuries away.

    They haven’t subtracted the Father, they’ve merely added the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Trinity.

  • Matt

    Maybe I should start a blog called “Get Polity,” because tmatt clearly does not. The United Church of Christ is not “super congregational.” Referring to it as such reveals an appalling ignorance for someone who trying to comment on religion. But why try to understand when it is so much easier to heap scorn?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Well, if it’s not news, then someone should ask why every blip and bobble of The Episcopal Church is news. Granted, the UCC is probably twice as large as TEC, but 2 million over 1 million can’t matter much in a country of 300 million.

    Theologically, the proposed change does correct what looks like a sub-trinitarian, if not fully modalist, construction. If that’s the intent, it fails by leaving out the Father/Mother/Parent. :-)

  • Stephen A.

    I think it’s a story, though I’m not sure how “mainstream” it is, because an allegedly Christian denomination wishes to remove one person in the traditional Trinity but still call it a “trinity.” That kind of tone-deafness can’t even be made up by Dan Brown! Wow. Why not eliminate the “Trinity” reference at all? Or is the “maleness” of The Father too hot to handle and to un-PC for the UCC? (Um, the Son and the Holy Spirit are referred to as “Him” throughout history as well, and Jesus was provably and undeniably male.) Which brings up another story: the liberal churches’ war on males and fascination with femininity as a political and social counter to 5000 years of supposed male oppression.

  • Bram

    Jesus was a rich, white, Northeastern liberal’s nightmare — a working-class male from “fly-over country,” and one with patriarchal ideals, one who honored and obeyed his Dad.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Bad me: The Episcopal Church is twice the size of the UCC.

    The Assemblies of God is around 3 million: would a story like this be big news? And yes, they might have a story on Trinitarian doctrine, given the modalism of some pentecostal groups. Does their not being a mainline denomination affect their newsworthiness? That’s the same question that informs this thread: does the UCC matter?

  • Audrey

    The UCC also accepted a Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism between The United Church of Christ; Presbyterian Church-USA; Reformed Church in America and Christian Reformed Church; and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB. Part of that agreement was to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of Holy Spirit.

  • http://reformedpastor.wordpress.com David Fischler

    tmatt: You’ve let yourself in for some (justified) criticism when you write:

    “So is this a mainstream news story? I would say that it is, since editing the ancient Christian creeds is a highly symbolic act.”

    It isn’t the creeds they’ve amended, but the UCC Constitution–a far, far less consequential document in the larger scheme of things. An update with a correction would be appropriate on this point.

    Beyond that, it seems a lot of your critics haven’t actually read the article, or understand the purpose of GetReligion–they’re simply cutting and pasting from whoever bashed you first.

  • http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com John Petty

    Looks to me like tmatt got punked by a right-wing media outfit.

    Time for another column about how nobody else understands religion.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JOHN PETTY, et al:

    I have been in the hospital part of this week and not in much of a position to respond.

    The UCC is a congregational body in which the congregations have great independence, yet the national body still makes loud policy statements.

    The status of the creeds in a non-creedal body? I decided, based on my years of church history studies, that the body’s constitution is its MOST SYMBOLIC STATEMENT of its beliefs.

    Thus, the lose of Father/ancient Christian language there is certainly newsworthy. I am VERY familiar with the UCC’s long use of gender neutral language in other settings. Once again, it is this unique blend of congregationalism and national structure. What authority did those early experiments have? People in the UCC would differ on that.

    I still stand by the post as written — however, noting that the Baptism Agreement is also major news and certainly creates a tension with the Constitution.

    BTW, Obama left Trinity. He has never left the UCC, to my knowledge and certainly affirmed his membership to the UCC in his justifiably famous 2007 speech to one of its meetings.

    http://www.tmatt.net/2007/06/27/obamas-awesome-testimony/

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    One more thing.

    In my experience, valid news tips can come from activists on the left and right. All have their motives, of course. But it does not make sense for mainstream reporters to ignore folks on either side of these issues.

    So no PUNKED. It was a valid news tip about a valid story.

  • http://reformedpastor.wordpress.com David Fischler

    tmatt: Sorry to hear about your hospitalization. Prayers going up for your quick recovery from whatever has ailed you.

    I agree completely that the change in language is significant. It’s also an expression of UCC culture, one in which “non-sexist God language” is a lot more important than any form of historic or biblical orthodoxy. The fact that the previous language, however infelicitous (I doubt that in 1957, it was intended to be modalistic, even if it came out that way; it was just a badly constructed sentence) had stood for over 50 years also makes a change of this sort news.

    I can also see your point about the UCC constitution having the place of the ancient creeds in a non-creedal church. That being the case, however, it still isn’t the ancient creeds that have been changed, but the UCC’s modern one. For me, the bigger point is that the UCC is rejecting biblical language for God, not to mention the creeds.

    In any case, the language in question doesn’t even really serve the function of a creed, since no subscription to it is required or even suggested. There are plenty of unitarians of one stripe or another in the UCC, many of whom probably don’t even know that this statement is in the denomination’s constitution.

  • Grant

    I find the direction of the conversation odd…judging the relevancy of a particular denomination rather than the substance of the issue at hand: what sort of language do we use in refering to God? The more conservative take starts to make baptism sound like a magical incantation…don’t use the right words and it doesn’t ‘take.’ Jesus used Aramaic/Hebrew language; Bible reports it in Greek; RC church used Latin for eons. Nuances change in each setting (e.g. is Spirit ruach? or the Greek philosophical-laden term? or the conotations you might find in English presently?). It is orthodox to hold that all language is ultimately metaphorical, and that we use language/metaphors given by revelation…knowing that we use words to point toward but not capture the Divine.
    The language of scripture and tradition are predominately masculine, Father, for the First Person; however there is a strong, undeniable strain of images and gendered images that portray the First Person in explicitely feminine images and terms. Same with Jesus, esp in medieval saints’ writings. In general, it seems to me that expanding rather than limiting our language is most faithful. Still, leaves the issue of what to do with baptismal formula, I know….


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