Beliefnet News

By Chris Herlinger
Religion News Service

NEW YORK — When the Rev. Bob Edgar announced that he was stepping down as head of the National Council of Churches, someone suggested that he might apply for the soon-to-be-vacant pulpit across the street at the historic Riverside Church.
“But Bob,” his wife told him, “you only have one sermon in you.”
So perhaps a better fit might be yet another position at the corner of West 120th Street and Claremont Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side– the soon-to-be-vacant presidency at Union Theological Seminary, where Joseph C. Hough Jr. is retiring.
As it turns out, Edgar, a former Democratic congressman, chose to return to Washington to head the public advocacy group Common Cause.
Still, the departures of Edgar from the NCC, Hough from Union Seminary and the Rev. Jim Forbes from Riverside are leaving three venerable — some might say vulnerable — icons of liberal Protestantism with “Help Wanted” signs on their doors.
While coincidental, the three vacancies have made for a unique situation for the three institutions, which are bound together by more than just sharing three corners of the same intersection. On a small scale, Forbes studied and taught at Union while Hough regularly worships at Riverside, and Edgar occasionally preached from Riverside’s pulpit.
But in a larger sense, Union produced generations of leaders for pulpits like Riverside, the soaring gothic church built by John D.
Rockefeller Jr. in the 1920s. The NCC, meanwhile, emerged in the 1950s to push in the public square the progressive social justice message taught at places like Union and preached at churches like Riverside.
The changing of the guard has not gone unnoticed at the three institutions that once helped define the American Protestant establishment, even as resurgent conservatives have redefined the U.S. religious landscape.
For his part, Hough, 74, says the change simply represents “a passing of the baton from one generation to another.” (Forbes is 71 and Edgar is 64.)
All three men say they’re optimistic that liberal Protestantism — the interwoven mix of Christian gospel, political activism and the quest for social justice — may actually be re-emerging as a serious force in American society.
“There are puddles here and there,” Forbes said recently about the pockets of progressive Christianity he sees bubbling up in the United States, “and I’ve begun to see streams — though at what point do we see rivers that reach the sea?”
Both Edgar and Hough have devoted more time and attention to a more practical issue that dominated their tenures: finances. Both were hired to perform what amounted to emergency financial operations to resuscitate struggling institutions that were hemorrhaging money.
“I wasn’t sure it was salvageable,” Edgar said of his first year at the NCC. Hough was similarly blunt about Union’s outlook. “I was told the place was done for,” he said.
Financial woes have always been a concern for Union, a non-denominational seminary that severed formal ties with the Presbyterian Church a century ago over issues of academic freedom and liberal biblical scholarship. The situation worsened in the 1990s in part because of an aging — although impressive — and increasingly expensive physical plant and campus.
At the NCC, Edgar was brought in seven years ago to reverse years of runaway spending. Declining memberships and budgets of the NCC’s 35 member denominations continue to be a problem, as is the NCC’s search for a way out of the conservative political desert.
By most accounts, they succeeded on the financial questions. Hough helped raise an estimated $30 million; Union’s endowment is now approaching $100 million. After starting $6 million in the red, Edgar says the NCC is $8 million in the black.
That’s not to say that the institutions have silenced their critics.
Chief among them is James Tonkowich, president of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, a frequent critic of liberal mainline Protestantism.
Tonkowich concedes that high-profile Christian progressives like author Jim Wallis “may be having their day in the sun” with greater media visibility. But he argues that declining denominations, and an embrace of “deal-buster” issues like gay marriage and abortion, make liberal churches barely discernible from liberal politics.
“People are willing to go out on a limb for an exclamation point,” he said, “but no one is willing to go out on a limb for a question mark.”
Even those who support the mission of the three New York institutions wonder if they have fully grasped how fundamentally the Protestant establishment has shifted since the days when, for example, Rockefeller built Riverside, Reinhold Niebuhr held forth at Union and John Foster Dulles — later secretary of state — was active in the modern ecumenical movement.
“Could it be that the theme that runs through the three institutions is that what used to be the establishment is no longer?” said the Rev.
Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America and a former NCC president.
Gary Dorrien, a Union professor who has written a multivolume history of the Protestant left, said Union and Riverside survived the process of “disestablishment” because they recognized that liberal Protestantism needed a wider and more inclusive identity.
Union was “the original home and center” of black liberation theology and feminist social ethics, he said. “Union came early to the marginalization of mainline Protestantism and embraced it.”
Riverside, meanwhile, became even more of a multiethnic and multiracial church under Forbes, a charismatic black preacher, though “Riverside has a small faction that pines for the white-gloved days of old,” he said.
The NCC has had the hardest time making the adjustment, Dorrien said.
“That problem is built into the organization’s DNA,” he said. “The NCC has been led by people who understand the issue perfectly well, but some of the denominations that comprise the NCC are tormented by their fond memories of being in the mainline.”
Whoever ends up heading the NCC, he said, “will spend a lot of time dealing with the post-mainline-adjustment issue.”

Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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