God is Still Speaking,


The Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ owes its roots to the Congregational Christian and Evangelical and Reformed Churches. 

The Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund (BBZ) chronicled the history of the Conference during her banquet speech at the June 2014 Annual Meeting. She has allowed us to share a 26 page transcript of her speech, with illustrations. The following are a few excerpts.

In 1957, two denominations (Congregational Christian and Evangelical and Reformed) came together driven by a passion for Christian unity. They were convinced that it was possible to overcome and blend denominational differences and create a new kind of church—a united church. There would still be differences, but they had faith that their loyalty to Jesus Christ would enable them to move beyond narrow denominational camps. Jesus prayed they “they may all be one.” They wanted to answer that prayer. Both of the denominations that came together to create the UCC knew how to live with differences. In 1931, past distinctions between establishment Congregationalists, and grass roots Christian churches (these Christians were free spirits that rejected all denominational labels), found common cause as a new denomination – the Congregational Christian Churches. Then in 1934 past differences between German Reformed and German Evangelical churches blended with German cultural traditions to create the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Both of these new denominations were looking for additional ways to heal the broken organizational body of Christ. They believed that God was calling all churches to seek unity.

The first step towards structuring the UCC, once the commitment to come together around the Basis of Union in 1957 had been made, was to recognize all of the existing conferences and synods of the CC Churches and E&R Church as “Acting Conferences of the United Church of Christ.” This status gave them time to sort out new patterns, partnerships and alliances. Everyone had to let go of some past friendships and relationships in order to create new UCC Conference structures. Nobody mandated how things ought to blend. It was a grass roots effort to discover and invent new patterns for church unity.

After the new UCC Constitution was endorsed by General Synod in 1961, things began to change: some new UCC conferences were created by simply taking existing Congregational Conferences that had no E&R churches in their boundaries, and renaming them UCC. By 1962 there were five totally new conferences, and in 1963 there were thirteen new UCC Conferences, in 1964 two more new conferences were formed (we were one of those).

Churches in E&R Synods were structurally disciplined because of the governance patterns that echoed common patterns in American government and in many Presbyterial and Episcopal denominations. Unlike Congregational Christians, in the E&R Church when a Synod decided something, its actions were binding on each local church. Congregational Christian decision making worked differently. Congregational churches that became part of the CAC were mostly from the former Middle Atlantic Conference of the Congregational Christian Churches. Not only did each local church have to decide if it wanted to join the UCC, but deciding on Conference boundaries involved everyone. The shaping of the Central Atlantic Conference involved debates about how far to extend the new Conference into Virginia — where white churches had been part of the Southern Convention and black churches had been part of the Convention of the South. There was debate about whether New Jersey should be a separate Conference. It seemed crazy to stretch a single UCC Conference from the New York city suburbs to Richmond and Roanoke, Virginia, but in the end that is what happened.

When the new UCC Central Atlantic Conference began functioning in January 1965, (after a crucial vote by the POTOMAC SYNOD of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and a vote by the MIDDLE ATLANTIC CONFERENCE of the Congregational Christian Churches, the  CENTRAL ATLANTIC CONFERENCE was born. There were 103 E&R churches with 25,254 members from the POTOMAC SYNOD. There were 77 CC churches with 33,388 members from the MIDDLE ATLANTIC CONFERENCE. In addition there were 32 other churches from boundary areas where new conferences had been formed, or where individual churches made decisions to join a new UCC Conference. CAC also included 12 northern New Jersey churches that had been part of the New York Synod/Conference, one church from the newly formed Penn 11Central Conference, and 19 churches that had been part of the Southern Convention (all from VA and WV). The first statistics about the Central Atlantic Conference appeared in the 1966 Yearbook (Dec 1964 data). [pp. 332-33] At its birth the CENTRAL ATLANTIC CONFERENCE had 203 churches with 65,003 members. (Today we have 168 churches with 25,883 members.)

From the beginning CAC was positioned to be a leading conference. There were only 11 of the  39 conferences that had more churches than CAC. Our location was strategic. During the firstthirty years of the UCC, national denominational offices of the UCC were located in New York City and many national church staff and officers lived in New Jersey and were active members in local CAC congregations. Furthermore, because of our social justice work in Washington, DC, CAC congregations in and around Washington, DC have been well informed and involved in many political, legal, environmental and social justice issues. Over and over this Conference has stepped forward to share first hand knowledge of issues facing the nation and the UCC, simply because church members knew people who were involved on Capitol Hill or in progressive reform efforts.

Even before 1964 CAC churches played key roles in the Civil Rights movement, hosting bus loads of church people during the 1963 March on Washington. African American leadership and involvement in the CAC has repeatedly kept the Central Atlantic Conference focused on racial justice issues. The formation of the United Church of Christ was profoundly influenced by the Civil Rights movement. In the 1960s when people said that their church was “open,” that statement was not about human sexuality (as we talk about open and affirming churches today), it was saying that blacks were welcome to attend worship and join their churches. Rev. Dr. Arthur Gray, an African American pastor and member of the Executive Committee, spoke to the CAC Annual meeting. He said, “Although some progress has been made in our efforts to purge our churches and our society of racial prejudice and discrimination, we cannot hide the fact that over half the churches of our denomination still cling to the closed door
14membership policy. A few of our churches have even closed their membership roll to avoid the issue.”

This Conference has had only five called Conference ministers in its fifty year history: Frank Parrizzini, Sid Lovett, Curtis Clare, and John Deckenback. There were several interims, but basically Conference leadership has been stable and flexible. John Deckenback is the longest serving Conference Minister in the entire UCC, serving from 1992 to 2016.

he CAC took leadership in 1971 around women’s issues, from small matters to big issues. In 1971 a female delegate, Mrs. John Herman from Christ Church, Silver Spring, MD protested the manner in which her “name tag” had been prepared and indicated her desire to be called by 18her given name. Changes were made. In 1971 CAC endorsed the “Pronouncement on the Status of Women in Church and Society.” It was passed at the UCC General Synod and led to the creation of the Task Force on Women in Church and Society. That same year CAC passed “A
Proposal for Action Toward Freedom of Choice in the Area of Abortion.” In addition, by the mid-1970s as more and more women went to seminary and were called to parish ministry, the Central Atlantic Conference (in 1975) invited the Rev. Lois Sundeen, to become the first woman in the UCC serving as an Area Conference Minister. She held that position in New Jersey, along with other responsibilities in the Conference, until 1989.

CAC has had a significant impact on the UCC and sexuality issues. Most of us know that the Rev. Bill Johnson was the first openly homosexual person ordained in the UCC in 1972 in Northern California. His ordination is generally considered the first ordination of an openly homosexual person in mainstream Protestantism. Lively discussion around sexuality issues continued during subsequent UCC General Synods. A 200 page book, entitled HUMAN SEXUALITY: A PRELIMINARY STUDY was presented to the General Synod in 1977 and commended for study to all UCC churches. By the early 1980s the CAC Potomac Association appointed a committee to study the relationship between homosexuality and ordained ministry, and in 1982 the Potomac Association ordained the Rev. Ann Holmes—the first openly lesbian clergy woman in the entire UCC.  More and more CAC churches are taking stands around sexuality issues—calling openly homosexual leadership, and welcoming LGBT members. In 1985 the General Synod encouraged local congregations to publically declare themselves “open and affirming,” and 30 years later one third of Central Atlantic Conference churches have declared themselves ONA. What does that mean? It means that a church has made “a public covenant to welcome into its full life and ministry persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.” In 1987 First Congregational UCC in DC became one of the earliest ONA churches in the denomination. New Ark UCC in Newark, DE became an ONA church in 1990; and Sanctuary UCC in Harrisonburg, VA became an ONA church in 1993. On the chronological list of the 57 churches in the CAC that are Open and Affirming, we can see how the idea expanded: From 1985 to 1989 only four CAC churches were listed, from 1990 to 1999 there were six, from 2000 to 2004 there were 18 and from 2005 to 2009 there were 16. Since 2010 11 more churches have been added to the list.

In the past two decades concerns about injustices related to sexuality and marriage have expanded. At its 2004 annual meeting, CAC delegates approved a resolution calling on General Synod to encourage churches to study the issue of marriage equality. The Southern California- Nevada Conference went further and sent a resolution to the 2005 General Synod asking that the General Synod affirm same gender marriage equality. When delegates got to General Synod, they left the CAC resolution on the table and worked closely with Southern-California-Nevada
delegates to shape the resolution affirming marriage equality that was finally voted by the General Synod. This is a good example of why the UCC insists that delegates to wider church meetings should not be instructed or legally bound to vote in certain ways. They are always free (guided by the Holy Spirit and respectful of the churches they represent) to act and vote responsibly in the wider church setting. We all know that since the 2005 marriage equality vote the United Church of Christ has lost members and churches. But we have also gained new members. Entire congregations have sought us out seeking to become part of the UCC. The conversation continues, but in the UCC, even when we are divided and troubled, we keep covenant. We remind ourselves that we do not come together in the United Church of Christ because we agree; we come together (and stay together) because God has called us to listen and grow in our faith. God is still speaking.

CAC has participated in many UCC programs and mission efforts to deal with social and political problems and build bridges where barriers continue to distort and limit freedoms. This Conference has been a team player with national programs. But what is special about this Conference is its willingness to take initiative and do things on its own.   Since 1981 the UCC has been in what we call “Full Communion” with the Evangelical Church of the Union (EKU), now the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). Near the beginning of this relationship in the 1980s CAC indicated its desire to develop a focused relationship with a particular region in Germany (sort of like the “sister city” partnerships that many cities have). CAC knows how to personalize and localize big issues into personal experiences and commitments. It sends money to support denominational initiatives, but it also gets involved and invested in partnerships and builds face to face friendships that make a difference. This has happened with Columbia, working with the Connecticut Conference to set up trips and actively support the Mennonite peace work in Columbia. This has happened on the Gulf Coast after Katrina, when CAC groups went south to rebuild and support the work of the church in Mississippi. This has happened when local churches have advocated for peace and played a role in the creation of the National Institute of Peace (a government agency in Washington). This happened after Hurricane Sandy when the Conference and local churches found multiple ways to be with and support each other. It happens when local congregations take mission trips and get involved in global issues and
mission. Rock Spring UCC in Arlington, VA went to Jerusalem last year. There are many other such efforts.

Howard University has a long-standing relationship with the UCC. Members at First Congregational Church in Washington, DC played a key role in founding Howard in 1868. During the past decade the CAC has worked with Howard University School of Divinity to raise funds for a faculty chair (what is called the American Missionary Association endowed 23professorship). The leadership of this Conference is committed to education for African Americans. With this new professorship Howard University School of Divinity will finally be able to offer a Ph.D. in religious studies. Few people realize that at present there is no graduate doctoral program in “religious studies” in a predominantly African American University anywhere in the country. The United Church of Christ and the Central Atlantic Conference are working to change this situation.

As the United Church of Christ moved into the 21 st century many in the Conference felt that it was time to find new ways to help the public recognize and remember who we are. Don Ray, a member of Emanuel UCC in Cambridge, MD, was the author a resolution calling for the UCC to develop an identity campaign. The resolution went from the Cambridge church, to the Chesapeake Association, to the CAC Annual Meeting, and on to General Synod. It is
appropriate to say that the Central Atlantic Conference played a key role in the development of what we now know as the “Still Speaking” initiative.

When the Central Atlantic Conference began in 1964 there were 203 churches and 67,000 members. Today there
are 168 churches and 25,000 members. Individual churches have closed or left for various reasons. Thirty-five of the 168 churches in this Conference today were founded since 1964 — that’s 21% of our churches. The oldest church in the Central Atlantic Conference was founded in 1688. Our youngest is in the process to gain standing.

Membership statistics are sobering, but relatively speaking the Central Atlantic Conference is typical. Fifty years is a long time. Being part of a local church is not as important as it once was. The Conference is smaller, but in many ways it is more together than it was fifty years ago. So what next? How is God calling this CENTRAL ATLANTIC CONFERENCE to give back to the rest of the UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST.

The Central Atlantic Conference has a great future. In 2017 the United Church of Christ General Synod will meet in the Central Atlantic Conference for the second time. Some of you remember that General Synod met in Washington, DC in 1977. We are about to do it again. This conference has things to share with the wider church and the UCC has things to share with the Conference. Hosting General Synod in Baltimore in 2017 is an honor that will stretch everyone and enrich our ways of being “church.”

Today the Central Atlantic Conference is made up of people bound together through the power of the Holy Spirit.  “Church” is not something Christians accomplish by getting everyone to agree or work together (although that is nice when it happens). No, church is a gift, pushing us to risk, to be prudent, to honor differences, and to
sustain each other.  In the UCC, because listening and speaking always go together, “diversity” can be recognized and honored — allowing us to say, “Everyone is welcome, no matter!” Are there boundaries? Of course. We are bound together in covenantal relationships, we are called to be ONE.

The world we live in is very different than it was in 1964. The Central Atlantic Conference is smaller than it was fifty years ago, but it is located in the center of things where religious people live. It has made a difference in local congregations, in the wider church and in the world for fifty years. “God is still speaking.”