NEW YORK, NOV. 20 -- The National Council of Churches (NCC), which represents 36 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, is fighting for its survival. Its finances are in such shambles that insiders told United Press International on Monday they wondered if the NCC could survive in its present state for more than six months.
Last week, the NCC's General Secretary Dr. Robert Edgar added to these woes by perpetrating an extraordinary ecumenical gaffe.
"He stiffed evangelicals and Roman Catholics when he withdrew his signature from the new Christian Declaration on Marriage," said Diane Knippers, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy in Washington.
"Under tremendous pressure from the gay and lesbian extremist fringe, Edgar has taken a big step back from ecumenism," Knippers continued, "he has done Christian unity a huge disservice."
Last month, Edgar proposed to enlarge the "ecumenical table." He called for a Christian summit involving the NCC, the Roman Catholic Church, and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), with whom Edgar's organization had not exactly been cheek-to-jowl until now.
What followed looked at first like an impressive hop forward in ecumenism. The evangelical's president, Bishop Kevin Mannoia, initiated a Christian Declaration on Marriage. It restated elementary Judeo-Christian tenets going back more than 3,000 years: that marriage is a holy union of one man and one woman; that it is an order of God's creation; that "in marriage many principles of the Kingdom of God are manifested."
It voiced concern over the nation's high divorce rate, a high rise in cohabitation and non-marital births, and it appealed to all churches to help strengthen matrimony in the United States.
The declaration was signed by Bishop Anthony O'Connell, chairman of the National conference of the Catholic Bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family Life, by Bishop Mannoia for the Evangelicals, by Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Edgar, whose signature came as a surprise to many conservative Christians.
But at the NCC's General Assembly in Atlanta last Tuesday, Edgar proudly pointed to his name on the document and was unusually complimentary about the evangelicals' faithfulness to the Gospel.
Two days later, though, he caused consternation among evangelicals when he addressed the "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Caucus" at the General Assembly. He said, he personally favored the blessing of same-sex partnerships, even though 35 out of the Council's 36 member churches reject this position.
He also stated, "We were involved in taking out language that was extremely offensive."
Retorted Richard Cizik, the NAE's Washington-based vice president: "What could be offensive about quotes from Scripture?"
One day later Edgar withdrew his signature, embarrassing especially NAE president Mannoia. His constituencies have been weary of any rapprochement with Edgar's NCC because they feel it is no longer true to the Gospel.
Officially, Mannoia said that he was deeply disappointed" by Edgar's move but his friends reported that he was seething. According to Cizik, it will now be "very difficult to resume the dialogue with the NCC."
Edgar, a Methodist minister and former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, explained that his "personal views on certain issues were much more progressive than those of the General Assembly. I affirm and support the inclusion of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in our membership."
This fellowship is a loose international network of congregations most of whose members are homosexuals. Last week, the General Assembly tabled its admission to the NCC indefinitely.
Observers at the Atlanta meeting report that Edgar's flip-flop was the result of strong pressure from gay rights activists and members of his own staff many of whom may soon be gone, anyway. Due to its financial crisis the NCC has decided to dismiss 20 of its 64 employees.
But Edgar was evidently undaunted by a looming backlash from evangelicals, Catholics, and the ever-growing conservative Renewal Movements within the all-Protestant mainline denominations. He claimed "a number of the NCC member communions interpret the document more as a condemnation of same-sex unions than as an affirmation of marriage.
The fact that the declaration omits mention of same-sex unions is seen by some as proof that all the signatories disapprove of such unions."
"Here, two realities clash. In the United Methodist Church, the largest NCC denomination, well over half of the clergy and congregants adhere to orthodox Christian positions on issues such as human sexuality," said Diane Knippers.
John A. Adams, editor of the Presbyterian Layman, believes that the same applies to his denomination and to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in America. According to Knippers, even in the Episcopal Church, one of the most liberal denominations in the country, a majority of the laity holds stick to traditional Christian tenets.
These churches, especially the Methodists, hold the NCC's purse strings. At the Atlanta General Assembly its finances struck some delegates as a mystery. Its investment folio was once $15 million; now it's down to $3 million, all of which is restricted and cannot be used to underwrite operating cost.
The NCC's executive board passed a budget for January 1-June 30, 2001. But that budget included $1 million in funds that had not been committed.
Over the weekend, the NCC's chief benefactor, the United Methodist Church, refused to approve a bailout gift to the NCC. Instead it decided to lend the Council $400,000 at an interest rate of seven percent annually.
"All that is sobering news," an NCC insider said on Monday on condition of anonymity, "perhaps by the middle of next year the National Council of Churches will have reduced itself to a small back office employing five or six people."
In the meantime, the evangelicals, the Roman Catholics and the Renewal
Movements within the mainline churches are continuing their exchanges about theological and moral issues, compliant with Christ's last prayer for his disciples, "that they may all be one" (John 17,21).