Tuesday, October 26, 2010

UCC and Ellen

Ok, so I have a confession to make.... I like Ellen. My wife happens to be a big fan (she even went to the show once) and the fact that I don't desperately want to change the channel when she's on sometimes worries me about myself. I think she's funny, intelligent, and represents some very positive shifts in our culture. I know that among most of my friends, my respect for Ellen is unpopular and if any of them read my blog I might have some explaining to do. But I also know that within my denomination, any criticism of Ellen would be equally unpopular, since the United Church of Christ is, on the national level, all about inclusiveness and gay rights.

So, once again, I found myself caught between a rock and a hard place when I heard that the UCC is inviting Ellen to be their keynote speaker at the General Synod meeting.
"In a unique bid to showcase the carefree, creative component of the UCC, the church has officially invited popular talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres to appear as keynote speaker at General Synod 28 next July in Tampa, Fla." (here's the whole article from the UCC website)
I'm new to the UCC, in a way, even though I've grown up in a UCC church. Perhaps I should say I am new to the UCC conversation since my church growing up never talked about its' denomination. But, nevertheless, I am still pursuing ordination therein. I love the denomination but I constantly find myself conflicted by it. In general, I don't think it does a good job of doing what it seems to say it wants to do. It seems to say that the heart of the denomination is the local church. But, if that is the case, they don't do a good job of including all the local churches within its midst on the national level. If the local church is the denomination's center, then the synod and the website should, in theory, remain very moderate on controversial issues such as homosexuality, for example, since many of the churches in its midst are still debating the subject. But they have not managed to do so. They definitely don't represent my congregation (which is a bit more conservative than I, myself, am) in much of what they do on the national level. Perhaps that's why the denomination seems to be shrinking (although I don't have any real data to back up that speculation).

Now that I've been so openly critical of the denomination which I love the most, let me say that I am proud to be a part of a community of Christians who are willing to include someone like Ellen who, in many Christian circles, is often deemed a heretic and a sinner. That's part of the reason why I am still in this denomination. But I'm actually embarrassed that they are inviting her to be the keynote speaker at their gathering. Like I said, I like Ellen, but let's think about the opportunity which is represented by the keynote speaker at the national general synod of the whole denomination. This is the person that has the opportunity to set the tone/foundation for the future of the church. They have the opportunity to leave us inspired and challenged toward more authentic and deeper faith and action. They can be a prophetic voice.

The Rev. Geoffrey Black wrote to Ellen,

"Your life, values and humor represent the best of what our church hopes to embody through our witness in the world: joy, love, hope and service... At a time when religion is often used to divide and exclude people, we seriously believe your participation at our biennial event could send a powerful message to the world."
But I do not agree. The message that sends will not be "powerful" but trendy. It may build bridges to some people who aren't normally attracted to church and faith in Christ but it will burn many more bridges to churches which are desperately trying to move forward responsibly and who would otherwise consider learning from and sharing with the UCC. It will probably send the message that we are theologically shallow and that any particular faith in Christ is much less important to us than "lightening up" and having a laugh. One commentator on the UCC website reported that according to one source, "her fees are $200,000 + expenses... Yes, she would bring people to General Synod, but at what cost?"

The message is that we're theologically shallow and that we're willing to spend thousands of dollars on a few laughs instead of hundreds for good insight and prophetic challenge. We care way too much about our popularity and not nearly enough about our purpose and our core values. Someone like Sarah Miles, Jennifer Knapp, or even Anne Lamott would probably make more sense... anyone with some direct theological depth who could challenge us.

Perhaps I'm overreacting but I just think it would be nice if the church would worry a little less about its public image and a little more about their more "conservative" or moderate member congregations at least on the national level. And perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe my church is the only UCC church in the country which would have any issues with all this. But I'm sure that's not true.

7 comments:

Steve Swope said...

Ah, Wes, I appreciate your dilemma here. And you're not alone in raising an eyebrow about this.

Of course, you know I think you have a place and a role in the UCC, as does First Congregational, Ramona. And some of us, at least, are committed to making sure another voice is heard.

In the long run, as I see it, this is just another "blip" - a public one, to be sure, but not the heart-and-soul of what we do. It's just a shame that this image will loom larger in the public mind than so many worthwhile things.

Hang in there!

WES ELLIS said...

Steve,
Thanks for the comment. I agree that this is just a "blip" since, for the most part, churches like mine aren't currently too involved on the synod level anyway. But nevertheless, this will not help me in my attempts to redeem the identity of denomination for those with whom I am doing ministry. I'm sure that I'm gonna have several conversations which start, "wait, you're with the UCC? Didn't they just have Ellen at their national gathering? What's up with that?"

Even though I'm in Ramona, word still travels and people are always looking to demonize something or someone.

Steve Swope said...

Oh, I definitely agree. You know that one of my past complaints has been that the decision-makers don't seem to take into account the reactions of churches like yours when they make decisions. It's as if there's no one saying "wait a minute." But the UCC would be a lesser place without you and Ramona.

By the way, love Jack Johnson! And if you get to an Association meeting sometime, you might meet Rev. Gordon Baker, a saint if there ever was one, who happens to be his wife's grandfather. Say hi for me.

Joel Walkley said...

Thank you for voicing your concern about this "gimmicky" campaign. This will certainly prove to be a challenge when telling the local church I serve about the merits of being connected with the UCC.

By the way, I just left Pasadena CA, graduating from Fuller Theological Seminary. We may have been neighbors!

WES ELLIS said...

Joel,

So you're a disgruntled UCCer too! It has been difficult to navigate the whole "what's the UCC denomination all about?" question in my congregation. There's so much more good than bad in the UCC but it is, nevertheless, difficult to sell that in some contexts.

Yay Fuller! I do love that school. We probably weren't neighbors (since I live in Ramona now ...we probably would have been closer when I went to Azusa Pacific) but I'm sure we're familiar with many of the same places.

Archives?

Mary said...

Thank you for your comments. It's good to hear from your part of the country and the concerns that you face.
I am interested in the campaign in the context of bringing our members together to do something creative which would also be uplifting. I appreciate your point of view. Good to think about.
best wishes.
(I found your blog by googling "UCC - Ellen" by the way.)

Mary said...

PS In reading my post, I feel I need to clarify...I'm just a member of my congregation, but an arts educator, so of course i think the campaign to bring Ellen to Synod is a fun way to challenge people to be more creative. (Buzz words being "fun" and "creative"!) That it might be shallow never occurred to me. I just see it as an opportunity to bring people together in a new way. It's good to have this conversation..thanks!