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May 5, 2000
Column #975

CHRISTIAN CHURCHES AGREE ON STRATEGY TO SAVE MARRIAGES

     For the first time in history, key leaders of America's Christian religious denominations and ecumenical groups representing 241,000 churches and 159 million Americans met and agreed to develop a strategy to strengthen marriage in America. 

     The meeting was called by Free Methodist Bishop Kevin Mannoia, the new President of the National Association of Evangelicals, a fellowship of 51 denominations with 45,000 churches attended by 30 million people. He said, ''Marriage is foundational in the life of the church and culture. Our role can change the rate of divorce.We are coming together without an agenda to see if we have a common understanding of our commitment to marriage.''

     Mannoia added, inspiringly, ''The character of the Kingdom of God is uniquely defined in marriage. Marriage was the first relationship manifestation of the Kingdom of God. It epitomizes those principles better than any other. This can best be seen in the ''one anothers'' of Scripture: 

''Forgive one another as God in Christ forgave you.'' (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13)
''A new commandment to love one another as I have loved you.'' (John 13:34; 15:12)
''Confess your sins to one another.'' James 5:16
''Greet one another with a holy kiss.'' (Romans 16:16; I Cor.16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12 
''Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.'' (Eph. 5:21)

     Finally, he concluded, ''If we don't get marriage right, we will miss the Kingdom of God.  Marriage is interdependent, mutually submissive, transparent. We are to pray for one another, confess our sins to one another, greet one another with a holy kiss.''

     Dr. Eileen Lindner, Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC), representing 35 Mainline Protestant, Orthodox and African American denominations with 133,370 churches and 52 million members, confessed, ''It is a wonderment to me that in all these years, we have not found common ground in marriage. I am an historian. At the National Council of Churches, the word `marriage' appears only twice on our database. It is clear we do not give attention to marriage counseling. There is no literature which gives pastors resources. The National Council of Churches is usually defined by its stands on domestic policy.'' 

     Dr. Bill Merrell, Vice President of Southern Baptists who have 40,870 local churches with 15.7 million members, said ''We are very decentralized. Our churches are independent and autonomous. But we have a high degree of goal integration. We are looking for ways to become more actively involved in strengthening marriage.'' He readily conceded, ''Southern Baptists do not have a rich tradition of ecumenism. It is not a compelling model,'' sparking some laughter.  However, he added, ''In what some call the `culture wars,' we have a commonality on this issue.'' 

     William Cardinal Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore and past President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops who oversee 19,584 parishes with 62 million members, said, ''Catholics view marriage as a sacrament, a covenant between the husband and wife, which Christ sees as permanent.'' By the 1980's Catholic dioceses adopted ''Common Marriage Policies'' which typically required six months of marriage prep, the taking of a premarital inventory and attending ''Pre-Cana'' classes. Keeler added, ''We offered a thorough program of counseling by lay couples on such issues as communication and finances.'' Result: Catholics have America's lowest rate. 

     My wife, Harriet and I were then asked to summarize how we have helped clergy in 125 cities adopt ''Community Marriage Policies'' that have brought divorce rates down in dozens of cities by as much as one-third (in El Paso and Kansas City, KS). These covenants have involved Mainline and Evangelical Protestants working at the grassroots with Catholics and some Jews. 

     Therefore, these national leaders pledged a collaborative four-pronged effort to involve top denominational leaders to make marriage a priority with a goal to push down the divorce rate:

  1. Organize a series of regional conferences to be attended by bishop-level executives of
    the different Christian traditions perhaps as many as 16 over several years.

  2. Draft a statement of goals for strengthening marriage by making it a priority in local
    churches and by underscoring the importance of marriage to the broader culture a statement of
    principles that a wide range of Christian leaders could sign.

  3. Lend the moral authority of organized Christianity endorsing the importance of
    marriage in an advertising campaign that might be adopted by the Ad Council.

  4. Agree on a World Marriage Day that honors God's first institution, perhaps endorsing a
    campaign already begun by Catholics on the Sunday closest to Valentine's Day.

     Dr. Edward Foggs, NAE Chairman and the first black General Director of the Church of God (Anderson) said later, ''It is significant that religious leaders in particular recognize that we need to address the problem in some united effort. This effort offers some excellent possibilities for helping the nation address the problem.'' 

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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