Let’s be honest: if congregationalism were thriving in New England, we would not be thinking about dissolving three conferences and forming a new one. From my vantage point of a young seminarian who was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, I see it everywhere: our churches are dying, our pews are emptying, our seminaries are closing, and our budgets are dwindling.
However, I offer this harsh critique for an important reason, and actually for a theological reason: Good Friday is my favorite Christian holiday.
One of my favorite books is a memoir written by a young woman who spends time at Holden Village, a Christian community on Lake Chelan in Washington State, very similar to our beloved Silver Lake Conference Center in Connecticut. There’s a part of the book where one of the protagonists shares my love of Good Friday and speaks saying:
“I believe in the resurrection sure. But I also believe in the tomb. I believe that darkness is crucial to the story.” She continues to speak to another character saying, “You’re in the tomb. So look around. See what it had to offer. You won’t be here forever.”
In considering the formation of a new conference, it would be disingenuous to proceed further in discernment without a deep reflection of the tomb. Or in other words, we would be remiss if we don’t take this opportunity to dwell in the truth that the reality of death is present in the current state of our conferences, associations and local churches.
Before making a commitment to forming a new vision for the United Church of Christ in New England we first need to take an honest look at why our churches are experiencing this death.
We need to confront the reasons our mainline liberal churches are dying: the tendency to preach racial justice but continuing with internal racist hiring policies, the practice of marketing social justice without risking the deep commitment needed to deepen activism, hanging signs of LGBTQ welcome without first making our hearts and theology fully loving, worshiping our budgets and buildings instead of loving our neighbors.
Some have seen the insidious, structural and systemic reasons that death has thrived among our communities for years, and some are just beginning to notice our own internal shadows. However, I believe that before attempting to rebuild or revision our communities, we need to be Good Friday Christians. We need to sit in the feeling of death. In the formation of a new conference, much will be lost. Jobs will be lost, buildings will be sold and many things will change.
However, it seems ironic to me that so many Christian communities are afraid of death. Did Jesus not die? Did Mary not cry outside of the tomb? Does our faith not hold a theology of embracing darkness?
I am not afraid of examining this new season of life for the UCC in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island because our theology celebrates Good Friday, and then celebrates Easter. In my favorite Easter poem, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, Wendell Barry ends with a call to “Practice Resurrection.”
What does it look like in our own lives to practice resurrection? In the midst of Easter season we can paint eggs, admire tulips and claim that “Christ has risen indeed,” but if we do not practice resurrection in our own life does our theology mean much?
I am excited about the opportunity to see what will be resurrected out of the destruction of these separate bodies. Each year, we have the opportunity to look at our life through the Lenten season and see what we want to let go, and examine which sins we as individuals and as a church need to repent. Each year our liturgical calendar gives us the chance to accept destruction, and then the chance for new life.
In the forming of a new conference in New England there is a chance to actually live the theology we stand for. If we trust our theology of Good Friday, can we actually sit in the mourning and grief of the loss of what was? Can we look around the tomb and discern what we can learn from it? Can we trust that resurrection will come in our community of Christ in the UCC?
If we trust death, we are then able to trust that there will be new life. In Easter and in resurrection, there is new life even beyond what we can imagine. What sorts of flowers will bloom out of this season of rebirth? What sorts of new communities, coalitions and relationships will be formed? If we look around the tomb and then practice resurrection, the possibilities, I believe, are infinite.
Kaeley McEvoy is a Masters of Divinity Student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, a Member in Discernment in the Litchfield South Association and a Community Minister at Judson Memorial Church in NYC.
(Read more about the proposal for the Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island conferences to join together in forming a new conference.)
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