Early in December, 1942, a series of meetings was held in Cleveland, Ohio, which has come to be known as The Cleveland Convention. The Federal Council of Churches had its biennial session ; the Foreign Missions Conference of North America held its annual session; and similar meetings of the Home Missions Council and the United Council of Church Women, etc., were held. For a portion of the time all these various organizations were in joint session, but most of the work was done in separate sessions. Some matters of vital interest to the Christian church were on the agenda for consideration, and it was intensely interesting to listen to the discussions which took place.
In but few matters can Seventh-day Adventists find it possible to participate in the plans and objectives of these interchurch agencies in North America. Our attitudes and convictions are so different, that not a great deal of cooperation is expected of us. It was profitable, however, for our delegates to attend the Cleveland Convention, and thus have opportunity of hearing and seeing at first hand the trends and tides that are having their influence upon the Protestant churches of North America in these solemn days.
It will be of interest to readers of THE MINISTRY to know that when the topic, "How to Stimulate Interest in the Churches in the Foreign Missions Enterprise," was being considered, the chairman remarked that if there is one organization qualified to boast of accomplishments along that line, it is the Seventh-day Adventists. One of our delegates was given the opportunity of telling that large and imposing body of church leaders what we are doing for foreign missions, 'and how a comparatively small organization accomplishes so much. This is one respect in which we are envied by other church leaders, and several expressed the wish that they could emulate our example. Three major issues were considered at Cleveland. We shall refer briefly to each.
I. United Protestantism. For two years a joint committee of the eight interchurch agencies which were in session at Cleveland had been preparing a proposed constitution for an organization in North America which would bring these various agencies together in one parent organization. The proposed organization would be given a name such as "The North American Council of Churches of Christ." The existing interchurch agencies, such as the Foreign Missions Conference of North America, would retain their identity, but as divisions of the parent Council of Churches. It has been purposed that in this manner, Protestantism in North America could have one voice to speak for it, and there would be a united front to present in all issues. It was anticipated that much added strength and influence would thus result for Protestantism.
An editorial in the Christian Century for December 30, 1942, declares : "There has always been in the Protestant conscience a genuine but ineffective protest against this fissiparous tendency and a recognition of the divine imperative of Christian unity." The writer goes on to say : "This latent yearning for a united expression of the Christian fellowship has in our time been quickened with fresh vitality. Sectarianism has been put on the defensive. Sectarian thinking and planning are being displaced by ecumenical thinking and planning." The editor of Christian Century looked upon consideration by the interchurch agencies at Cleveland of a constitution for the proposed union of these agencies as "new evidence of the vigor of this spiritual urge which has inhered in Protestantism from the beginning."
The leading speakers at Cleveland emphasized over and over again that this new merger plan is in no sense a union of churches or denominations. It merely contemplates a union of the various agencies now representing the churches in different fields of activity. It is not difficult, however, to recognize in the formation of this all-embracing "North American Council of Churches of Christ" a step which will become, even if not deliberately intended to be so, a powerful lever to be used eventually in bringing about the full church unity which has been so much talked about and labored for in recent years.
While the Federal Council of Churches in session eventually gave approval to the proposed constitution, with a minor amendment for which consent is to be sought, the delegates to the sessions of the other interchurch agencies were not so clear about it. Many leaders of the more evangelical-minded churches expressed grave misgivings regarding the merger plan. It was hoped that the merger of agencies could be effected before 1945; but for this to be realized, there would need to be a considerable revolution of attitude on the part of the leadership of several of the large denominations.
That complete union is inevitable is recognized by Seventh-day Adventists, but we doubt that the architects of church unity will find much cause for satisfaction in the outcome of the Cleveland Convention. As matters stand now, the various agencies have not given their full approval to the new constitution, and when they do so, then the whole proposal must be submitted for approval to the executive boards of all the Protestant denominations in North America. There is much opposition at present, and the path to unity will be through stormy waters!
2. United Community Churches. Considerable study was given by one of the groups at the Cleveland Convention to the matter of united community churches. In many areas in North America at the present time there are springing up new, and sometimes large, communities of war workers on the outskirts of industrial cities. The spiritual interests of these groups need to be cared for ; yet because of the likely temporary nature of these settlements, it is felt by church leaders that it would be unfortunate, and indeed impracticable, for several denominations to establish churches in these communities to care for the interests of their communicants.
It is suggested, therefore, that one or more united community churches be established in these areas, as the need may indicate. The denomination first on the scene would have the responsibility of operating and pastoring the church. Members of all denominations would be permitted to worship in this church. If desired, their membership could be transferred to the community church "for the duration," or they could maintain their membership in their own church, or enter into a dual membership arrangement, according to their personal desire. Their status in the community church would not be affected by the membership plan chosen.
Many problems are connected with such a plan, arising out of varying methods of worship, communion service, baptism, etc. There was a decided disposition, however, to find a solution to these problems, or to get around them, in order to provide for the spiritual needs of many thousands of people who have moved away from their home churches during this emergency. It is readily recognized, of course, that Seventh-day Adventists cannot enter into such a united community church plan. On the other hand, we have a responsibility that we should not shun, of doing all we can to give the "bread of life" to these large numbers of people, who, being separated from customary influences, may be peculiarly susceptible to an earnest spiritual approach.
3. Excluding Protestants from South America. As lovers and proponents of religious liberty, Seventh-day Adventists will be particularly interested in what was done at the Cleveland Convention toward countering the Roman Catholic propaganda for the exclusion of Protestant missionaries from South America. The Catholic authorities have been working diligently toward this end for some time. They have sought to bring heavy pressure upon the Government of the United States to accomplish their purpose, and have exerted all the power of their influence in this direction upon the appropriate ministries in the various countries of South America. Roman Catholics have been openly carrying on their propaganda in the press here in the United States. Articles have appeared in the Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and in a number of diocesan and other periodicals, vehemently attacking Protestantism and its baleful influence in South American countries. Referring to this, the editor of Christian Century writes :
"The technique, for public consumption, is to represent the anti-Protestant movement as a spontaneous uprising of Latin-American indignation against Yankee interference, which is said to imperil the good neighbor policy, and to create the impression that their exclusion is already a fait accompli against which it would be useless as well as unpatriotic to protest. All of which, together with the misrepresentation of Protestant missions as a complex of political meddling, sectarian proselyting, and unwelcome alien interference in countries that are religiously and culturally self-sufficient, is a tissue of falsehood in which are woven only enough scattered threads of truth to give it a slight sheen of plausibility."
At Cleveland there was drafted a forceful exposure of and response to all this malicious Roman Catholic propaganda. The document was forwarded to the United States Government, and eventually released to the press in the United States. If workers have not yet read this statement, they should certainly do so. The full text will be found on page 1598 of the Christian Century for December 23, 1942. The statement refutes the misrepresentations made by Catholics, and makes a commendable presentation of the principles of religious liberty. 'While we know that there will eventually come a joining of hands, yet we welcome this vigorous defense of Protestantism, and especially the emphasis placed on religious liberty at the present time. Surely this development should be a challenge to us as a people to come to the front as never before in our work of championing the principles of religious liberty, which mean so much to us, and in educating public opinion regarding the importance of defending and preserving this precious heritage of the American people. Says the Christian Century:
"Back of this whole question of Protestant missions in 'Catholic' countries lies the much deeper question of the nature of religious liberty and the quality of our devotion to it. One good result of the current controversy may be to force us to a re-examination of our minds on this subject. And what attitude are American Catholics going to take about the proposal to combine the gosoel of the Four Freedoms with the doctrine of a closed continent for Catholics?"
We are not primarily concerned how our Roman Catholic friends will reconcile their inconsistencies, but we are vitally concerned as to what shall be "the quality of our devotion" to religious liberty. May God help us as leaders to measure up to our responsibilities and opportunities in these significant times.