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social sciences

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United Church of Christ / Congregationalism  

The United Church of Christ is an American Protestant denomination formed in 1957 as a result of a merger of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches, and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Its history, social policies, and ecumenicalism directly reflect the evolution of the church/state relationship and the involvement of the church in social progress.

The merger negotiations, which began in 1942, were beset at one point by litigation in secular courts, spurred by concern of some Congregationalists over what they feared would be loss of congregational autonomy. The formal name, "United Church of Christ" (not preceded by "the") was chosen in 1943 in a deliberate attempt to disavow any claims to exclusivity. The 1957 Constitution sets forth the church's principles of faith, but guarantees the autonomy of local congregations; and many UCC churches retain the word "Congregational" in their names.

Sponsor Message.

United Churchmen and United Churchwomen, as they refer to themselves, maintain beliefs in the divinity of Jesus and the authority of his teachings, yet approach scripture in a spirit of inquiry rather than literalism. In their social, political, and international concerns most UCC congregations have taken positions toward the liberal side of the Protestant spectrum.

The 1957 merger is one example of the church's ecumenical orientation and part of a succession of efforts toward unity among several historically related Christian denominations. There have been parallel developments in Britain and Canada. A 1925 merger of Methodists, Congregationalists, and a substantial percentage of Presbyterians resulted in the United Church of Canada. In 1972 most British Congregationalists and Presbyterians merged to form the United Reform Church there.

UCC's Antecedents

The Evangelical and Reformed Church was itself a result of a previous merger. The Evangelical branch derived directly from the Lutheran Reformation and was established in the Mississippi valley by German and Swiss missionary societies. The Reformed Church was brought to the mid-Atlantic States by German and Swiss settlers in the eighteenth century, and retained German as its language until the early 1900s.

Both traditions valued the freedom of religious expression, the authority of Jesus's teachings as revealed in scripture (over that of clerical authority), and both derived vitality from their situation within frontier society. Uneasy over the fragmentation of Protestantism, the two denominations established their union in 1934.

Congregationalism was one of the outcomes of dissenting theologies arising in England in the sixteenth century. It stemmed from the Separatists, a movement that favored breaking away from the Church of England rather than reforming it. Its presence in England was alternately tolerated or threatened, depending on who ruled from the throne. During one period of persecution, one group--the Mayflower Separatists--took refuge in Holland and then sailed to America to found the colony at Plymouth.

In America, Congregationalism was especially strong in New England. Historically, it is associated with those known today as Pilgrims or Puritans (organizers of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies), and it influenced the nature of governance of those colonies.

In England, the denomination became associated with educational reform, missionary work, and ecumenical activities. American Congregationalists founded institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Williams, Amherst, and Oberlin, but administered them free from sectarianism.

Methodism in England and Unitarianism in the United States both exerted theological influences as well as competition for membership. Congregationalism grew increasingly liberal in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Glbtq Concerns

Glbtq-inclusiveness in the United Church of Christ dates to the early 1970s, when pioneering local congregations began establishing such policies. The UCC General Synod adopted an "Open and Affirming" (ONA) resolution in 1985, encouraging its bodies to welcome persons of all sexual orientations into full life and ministry of the church. This policy was later amended to include all gender identities.

In 1987, the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns established the ONA program to provide leadership and resources for local congregations. After a period of study, discussion, prayer, and reflection, a congregation adopts an "open and affirming" statement and requests to be included in the Coalition's public listing of ONA congregations. At the close of 2003, the list included more than 400 churches.

Among the Coalition's programs are the People of Color Institute to address concerns of glbtq people of color; a Youth and Young Adult Program concerned with teen suicide and providing safe spaces for youth; and BAMN! ("By Any Means, Necessary!"), a network of bisexual clergy and lay members.

The United Church Board for Homeland Ministries publishes a curriculum for AIDS prevention. The United Church of Christ has been ordaining openly gay clergy since 1972. Its ongoing efforts in this area are designed to make the church, as a whole, "a place of extravagant welcome."

The outreach effort of the United Church has included aggressive advertising campaigns stressing the Church's commitment to inclusivity. The campaigns have been especially noteworthy at a time when many other denominations have been seen as demonizing glbtq people, attacking gay rights, or distancing themselves from controversial issues.

Making good on its pledge of inclusivity, the Church's General Synod in 2005 endorsed marriage equality, becoming one of the first mainline denominations in the United States to go on record in favor of same-sex marriage.

In response to the United Church's endorsement of same-sex marriage, several congregations voted to disafilliate. But the decision also attracted new members, including a predominantly gay "mega-church."

In 2006, Dallas's Cathedral of Hope, formally affiliated with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches and perhaps the world's largest predominantly glbtq congregation, voted to join the United Church. It became the denomination's third largest congregation and by far the largest in the South Central region.

Ruth M. Pettis


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A photograph of the First Congregational Church of Long Beach, California by Kaihsu Tai. The church is an open and affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ.
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   Related Entries
social sciences >> Overview:  Anglicanism / Episcopal Church

The Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church in the U. S. A. is a part, has dealt with issues of sexuality in complex ways, not all of them favorable to its glbtq membership.

social sciences >> Overview:  Gay and Lesbian Churches and Synagogues

Spurred by the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s, a number of religious groups--including specifically gay-oriented churches and synagogues--have been formed to address the needs of gay and lesbian believers.

social sciences >> Overview:  Metropolitan Community Church

The Metropolitan Community Church, a Christian denomination founded to minister to the glbtq community, has grown into a worldwide ministry with over 40,000 members in 18 countries.

social sciences >> Overview:  Presbyterianism

Attitudes toward homosexuality within Presbyterianism vary greatly from denomination to denomination, though there has recently been movement toward acceptance and inclusion by the largest and most influential church bodies of Presbyterianism.

social sciences >> Overview:  Same-Sex Marriage

Lesbian and gay couples have been fighting for the freedom to marry since the dawn of the modern glbtq struggle for equality; despite some success abroad, progress toward same-sex marriage in the United States has been slow.

social sciences >> Overview:  Spirituality

Today's glbtq spirituality movements must be seen as part of a long history in which gender-special people were considered sacred to their tribe or family because of their obvious spiritual gifts.

social sciences >> Overview:  Unitarians / Universalists

The Unitarian Universalist church in the United States has been outspoken in support of human rights--including, since 1970, those of the glbtq community.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Church of Canada

The United Church of Canada has been instrumental in the increased acceptance of glbtq rights, including same-sex marriage, in Canada.

social sciences >> White, James Melville "Mel"

Mel White spent over thirty years serving the Evangelical Christian community; after struggling with his homosexuality for many years, he broke his ties with anti-gay religious leaders and became a glbtq activist.


Gunnemann, Louis H. The Shaping of the United Church of Christ: An Essay in the History of American Christianity. Cleveland: United Church Press, 1999.

Horton, Douglas. The United Church of Christ: Its Origins, Organization and Role in the World Today. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962.

Justice and Peace: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues.

A Short Course in UCC History.

United Church of Christ. UCC Social Policy Regarding Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Concerns. Cleveland: United Church Press, 1995.

United Church of Christ, Coalition for LGBT Concerns.

United Church of Christ, Health and Wholeness Advocacy.

United Church of Christ, Justice & Witness Ministries. That We May All Be One. Cleveland: United Church Press, 1999.


    Citation Information
    Author: Pettis, Ruth M.  
    Entry Title: United Church of Christ / Congregationalism  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated June 10, 2008  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
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    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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