As recently as the 1990s, the National Council of Churches, the once great institution of mainstream liberal Christianity, still could make headlines. Under general secretary Joan Brown Campbell they raised money for burned black churches, (much of which forestalled the NCCs own financial insolvency), stood with President Clinton during his confrontations with the new Republican Congress, and championed the return of little Elian Gonzalez to Castros Cuba. In the early 2000s, Campbells successor, former Democratic Congressman Bob Edgar helped keep the NCC alive with grants from secular liberal philanthropies.
But the NCC has continued to shrivel. Not long ago the NCC still had hundreds of employees (including its large relief agency, Church World Service), and was headquartered in New York at the imposing Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive, built by the Rockefellers as a headquarters for Mainline Protestantism next to Union Seminary and Riverside Church. By 2002, under Edgar, the NCC was reduced to thirty-eight employees and a budget of less than ten million dollars. Today, the NCC staff roster lists six persons and its latest budget is $1.4 million. And last year, the NCC quit New York after over half a century and relocated its sharply pared-down staff into the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
How did this happen? With its leading Mainline Protestant member churches losing millions of members, much of the NCCs funding has dried up. Eastern Orthodox member communions, along with historic black denominations, contribute little to nothing to the NCCs finances. In 1999, Church World Service, the relief arm of the NCC and by far its most popular initiative, became autonomous, leaving the organization much weaker in its absence.
A continuing drift leftward has not helped the NCC. As of January 1, 2014, the NCCs new president and general secretary is Jim Winkler, long-time chief of the United Methodist lobby in Washington, D.C. His record includes outspoken support for abortion rights, the impeachment of President George W. Bush, and divestment against Israel.
In a farewell column for a publication of the United Methodist political lobby, the incoming NCC president and general secretary condemned the Methodist Churchs institutional homophobia and persecution of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered people and those who support them." He was referring to his denominations refusal to sanction same-sex unions and actively homosexual clergy. Of the NCCs thirty-seven member denominations, only about six have officially liberalized their teachings on sexuality The others, especially the Eastern Orthodox and historic black denominations, appear guilty of what Winkler deems institutional homophobia and persecution."
He also chastised leaders in his denomination who fretted over continuous membership loss, who now worship the gods of scarcity and measureable outcomes." He prayed they would return to a Jesus who was fixed on love, not numbers." And he insisted: If we share the love of Christ, be generous, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, free the oppressed, and still see our numbers decline, so be it." And so it seems to be going-although the NCCs website still advertises that 45 million Americans belong to NCC denominations, the NCCs most recent statistics cite only 39 million, and that number is fast falling. More political lobbyist than ecumenist, and with little background in fundraising (Methodisms lobby office is funded by mandatory church contributions and rent from the Methodist Building), Winkler will face a great challenge in trying to pull the NCC out of its long spiral.
Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.