UCC mulls name, denomination changes

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A major transformation could soon be underway at one of Canton’s most storied churches as the United Church of Christ contemplates both a defection from the UCC denomination and a return to its historical roots as a Congregational church.

At a special meeting on Sunday, November 22, members of the congregation will be asked to vote on two proposals: to change their affiliation from the UCC to the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC) and to change the name of the church from UCC-Canton to the Congregational Church of Canton.

Source: UCC Canton Facebook page

Source: UCC Canton Facebook page

“This month, we are facing one of the biggest challenges in our recent history,” writes UCC-Canton Pastor Dr. John Tamilio III in a recent church newsletter column entitled “The times they are a changin.”

While stressing that the ultimate decision rests with the congregation, Tamilio makes it clear in his column that he supports the move and enumerates his reasons as to why.

Most notably, Tamilio writes, the national body of the UCC has become “more and more political in recent years — and the politics it advocates have become more and more radical and polarizing.”

And while local churches are entirely autonomous and do not have to accept the proclamations of the denomination, Tamilio said he and others within the church have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the rhetoric espoused by the UCC and its “with us or against us” mentality.

Of particular concern to many parishioners, Tamilio said, is the UCC’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its “one-sided” characterization of Israel as the oppressor and Palestinians as innocent, marginalized victims. This past June, the denomination took it a step further when its General Synod overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for the divestment of companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and a boycott of products made by companies that operate in Israeli settlements.

A second resolution, which would have labeled the actions of Israel against Palestinians as “apartheid,” failed to get the requisite two-thirds vote but was nonetheless supported by a slim majority of the delegates.

Tamilio said the UCC’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is just one of many examples of the denomination’s growing radicalism, albeit one that really touched a nerve in his congregation. “I would say that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said of the recent resolutions passed at the state and national levels. “That was the lynchpin when we got to the point where we said, ‘Enough is enough. We can’t stand behind this.’”

Some of the congregants, in fact, were so appalled that they launched their own public information initiative, called the Israel-Palestine Just Peace Project, which aimed to provide other UCC churches across the region with access to information on both sides of the conflict.

Molly Notkin, who chairs the UCC-Canton outreach team and helped spearhead the project, said they sent information packets to more than 400 churches and also launched a website, uccincanton.org/israel-palestine-just-peace-project, that sought to counter the UCC’s entirely pro-Palestinian leanings.

Notkin, who is part of a mixed-faith family and a frequent attendee at Temple Beth David, said her issue was not with the viewpoints per se but with the absence of an entire side in a complex and deep-rooted debate.

“I am very, very empathetic and supportive of the average Palestinian,” said Notkin. “My issue is that Israel is being held totally responsible for the violence, and all of the information coming from the UCC has been pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.”

“Name an issue that’s hit the headlines,” she added, “and the UCC usually takes the more extreme approach, the far left approach.”

What’s ironic, Notkin said, is that she herself is politically left of center, and one of the reasons that she joined the UCC back in 2002 was due to its longstanding commitment to social justice issues, including its acceptance of LGBT clergy members and congregants. But what she does not want is a church telling her what stands she’s supposed to be taking.

Tamilio, like Notkin, is also quite proud of the UCC’s social justice heritage, and he considers himself and the Canton congregation “very liberal” in the traditional sense of the word, meaning that they are “open to diverse viewpoints and believe that everyone should have a voice.”

“There are some churches that want to leave the UCC because they’re more conservative and that’s not our story,” he said. “We are very much in support of issues regarding social justice, but when you politicize it in such a way where you infer that one viewpoint is the ‘social justice way’ of addressing the issue, then I think it becomes dangerous.”

Tamilio described the UCC-Canton congregation as very diverse — not only racially and ethnically but also politically and socioeconomically. And they coexist “just fine,” he said, because they do not let their politics interfere with what happens in their worship.

Largely for this reason, the church’s visionary board has recommended a move to the NACCC, which includes Congregational churches that were not part of the 1957 merger that formed the United Church of Christ. Tamilio said the NACCC ethos, which emphasizes local church autonomy and steers clear of politics altogether, more accurately reflects what the Canton congregation is “all about.”

Additionally, Tamilio noted that UCC-Canton already has a proud Congregational heritage — one that dates back nearly 300 years, when Joseph Morse settled as the town’s first Congregational minister. Following the Congregational/Unitarian controversy of the early 1800s, the church was then reestablished in the 1820s and continued as a Congregational church until the mid 20th century, evolving from a small meetinghouse near the Canton Viaduct to its present home on Washington Street.

Tamilio said the congregation has done a lot of research and has thought “long and hard” about the name and denomination changes over the past year and a half. They have also held several open forums on the matter, culminating in a meeting last month after church where approximately 65 members engaged in an open dialogue and ultimately agreed to bring the proposed changes to a formal vote.

After careful consideration and a lot of praying, Tamilio said he too now strongly supports the proposed changes and he’s willing to leave the only denomination he has ever known. At the same time, he has already made it clear to the congregation that he will honor their decision either way and will remain committed as their pastor.

As for the question of whether politics has a place at the pulpit, Tamilio said he has not always stayed away from political issues in his own sermons but believes that he has matured in his preaching over the past 16 years.

“I think it’s important to preach very sound theology,” he said, “and my hope is that my parishioners will take that and apply it to their lives and that will guide them in how they live their lives.”

Tamilio said he does not believe it is his role to tell people the “right way to vote or not to vote,” although he does believe there are some issues that transcend politics and warrant discussion and study within a church setting.

“Jesus, for instance, definitely stood with the poor and the marginalized and the disenfranchised,” he said, “and that is something I will preach until the day that I die.”

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