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November 25, 2000
Column #1004


     WASHINGTON - To celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus, leaders of organizations representing 240,000 churches with 160 million Americans issued a ''Christian Declaration on Marriage'' last week, committing themselves ''afresh to God's first institution - marriage.''

     To Bishop Kevin Mannoia, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the event was ''historic,'' with ''power to bring healing to our land and to marriages in every community.'' Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore and past president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, told reporters the event ''is a cause for rejoicing.''

     Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, frankly noted that ''divorce, substance abuse, domestic violence and negligence'' occur ''with equal frequency among churchgoers and non-churchgoers.'' Therefore, he felt it ''imperative'' that churches ''recommit themselves to building strong marriages, strengthening weak ones and restoring broken ones.''

     The Declaration itself is eloquent: ''With three-quarters of marriages performed by clergy, churches are uniquely positioned not only to call America to a stronger commitment to this holy union but to provide practical ministries and influence for reversing the course of our culture. It is evident in cities across the nation that where churches join in common commitment to restore a priority on marriage, divorces are reduced and communities are strengthened.''

     Asked for evidence by a reporter, Bishop Mannoia pointed to a background memo on the Declaration that I wrote which noted that divorces had plunged in 25 of 28 cities where Community Marriage Policies had been adopted according to county clerks. In three years, divorces had fallen 19 percent in Chattanooga, and by one-third in El Paso and in Kansas City, KS and its suburbs (from 1,530 to 1,034 divorces). Also, some Evangelical, Mainline and African American churches had reduced their own divorce rates to near zero. (See

     However, there was one cloud over the event. A key Declaration signer was absent, Dr. Robert Edgar, the new president of the National Council of Churches because his own General Assembly met the same week in Atlanta. Never before had that liberal umbrella group ever joined the conservative Southern Baptists and the NAE plus Catholic bishops in any joint effort.

     Sadly, the coalition lasted only three days. On Friday, Edgar told the NCC General Assembly that he was removing his name from the Declaration because he ''did not adequately consult'' with the NCC denominations, ''a number'' of which ''interpret the document more as a condemnation of same-sex unions than as an affirmation of marriage.''

     The Declaration simply states, ''We believe that marriage is a holy union of one man and one woman in which they commit, with God's help, to build a loving, life-giving faithful relationship that will last for a lifetime.'' Edgar said that statement ''may be used by some as a pretext for attacks on gay and lesbian persons.''

     In the first meeting last April of representatives of America's two largest denominations and its two ecumenical organizations, Dr. Mannoia said he felt a need to ''reaffirm our commitment of the church to marriage of a woman and man for life.'' One of those present did ask, ''Should we extend marriage to couples of the same sex?''

     Cardinal Keeler shook his head, ''I would not get into the same sex matter.'' Dr. Eileen Lindner, NCC's Associate General Secretary agreed from her organization's perspective: ''For 34 of our 35 denominations would be in that position. It violates church teaching.'' Conservatives in the room were both ''surprised and encouraged by her response,'' reports the meeting's minutes.

     Dr. Lindner, also said, movingly, ''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.''

     Same-sex matters have never been an issue for the six NCC African-American communions nor the eight Orthodox denominations. They have been intensely debated by Mainline denominations, but most continue to affirm traditional views, such as the Presbyterian Church which sees marriage as a ''lifelong commitment made by a woman and a man.''

     Bishop Mannoia expressed ''deep disappointment'' by Edgar's action, but added, ''There are many within the NCC who are in strong support of this document.'' He wrote a letter to the heads of each denomination, inviting ''your partnership and support.''

     Ironically, at Edgar's urging, the NCC passed a resolution calling for more cooperation with evangelicals and Catholics. Yet the NCC chose to walk away from the first table of real unity that had ever been fashioned between Christian leaders.

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus. 

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