WASHINGTON (BP)–Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, has withdrawn his name from a statement affirming the Christian view of marriage the same week it was released bearing his name as one of four original signers, citing concerns about its impact on same-sex unions as a reason.
Southern Baptist ethics agency head Richard Land, also an original signer, said he was “disappointed but not surprised that Dr. Edgar felt the need to remove his signature.”
“A Christian Declaration on Marriage” was released Nov. 14 as the result of an unusual collaborative effort of leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention, National Association of Evangelicals, National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the NCC. The statement, which was drafted by a task force representing the four religious bodies, did not condemn homosexual unions explicitly but described marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
In a Nov. 17 letter, Edgar informed the other three original signers he was withdrawing his support for the document, citing his failure to seek approval from NCC governing bodies, as well as members’ concerns about its impact on homosexuals and same-sex unions. His letter went to Land; Anthony O’Connell, bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., and chairman of the NCCB’s Committee on Marriage and Family Life, and Kevin Mannoia, NAE’s president who initiated the statement process.
In his letter, Edgar said he was withdrawing his support because he “did not adequately consult with the 36 member communions of the National Council of Churches” before signing it.
“A number of the NCC member communions interpret the document more as a condemnation of same-sex unions than as an affirmation of marriage,” Edgar wrote. “The fact that the declaration omits mention of same-sex unions is taken by some as proof that all of the signatories disapprove of such unions.
“Further, I am concerned that in our dangerously fragmented and violent society, misinterpretation of the declaration may be used by some as a pretext for attacks on gay and lesbian persons.”
Edgar apologized during the NCC’s annual General Assembly in Atlanta for endorsing “a position that hadn’t been approved by a working group, the Executive Board or the Assembly,” according to a NCC news release. His apology came at the start of the Nov. 17 morning plenary session.
The General Assembly, the NCC’s top legislative body, has not taken a position on same-sex unions but has endorsed full civil rights for homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals, according to the NCC release.
In his comments to the General Assembly, Edgar signaled support for homosexual unions. He said his views “are much more progressive than those” of the assembly, according to the news release. Edgar cited his support for a blessing of same-sex unions and for the inclusion in the NCC of a largely homosexual denomination, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, the news release reported.
Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he was “less surprised that [Edgar] removed his name than I was that he willingly signed the document in the first place. When he expressed his desire to affirm the document as finally formulated, I was pleasantly surprised, knowing of the strong voice that proponents of same-sex relationships have in NCC circles.
“The document does not address same-sex relationships, but it does define marriage as ‘a holy union of one man and one woman in which they commit, with God’s help, to build a loving, life-giving, faithful relationship that will last for a lifetime,'” Land said, quoting the declaration. “If language still means anything in Clintonian America, same-sex relationships cannot be stuffed into that definition. Surely Dr. Edgar understood that.
“Clearly, that was very problematic to significant elements of his NCC constituency, and perhaps that illustrates one of the reasons that the NCC represents an ever-declining segment of the American religious population.”
The NCC consists largely of mainline Protestant denominations, which have experienced dramatic losses in membership in recent decades.
In his letter, Edgar said he still supported ecumenical efforts and hoped to work with the other religious leaders to reduce the divorce rate.
Land said, “If Dr. Edgar’s and the NCC’s price for ecumenical endeavor is affirmation of same-sex relationships, then the price is, and always will be, too high and unacceptable.”
The NAE’s Mannoia said he was “deeply disappointed” at Edgar’s decision, according to a news report on The Layman Online. “If the NCC does not want to partner with the Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists and evangelicals on this,” he said, then “I feel sad that they have chosen not to engage with us on this very important issue.”
When the declaration on marriage was released at a Washington news conference, speakers said the motivation for the document was primarily to seek to remedy the undermining of marriage, rather than to provide a response to the call by some for approval of homosexual marriage. “But we certainly don’t shy away from asserting … that God ordained marriage as between a man and a woman … not between two people of the same sex,” Land said.
Church leaders have an “unprecedented need and responsibility” to strengthen marriages in the face of a “high divorce rate, a rise in cohabitation, a rise in nonmarital births, a decline in the marriage rate, and a diminishing interest in and readiness for marrying,” according to the statement.
The declaration calls for churches to strengthen marriage by, among other things, educating young people about its meaning, preparing engaged couples for marriage, providing mentor couples and upholding the institution of marriage in society. The statement also urges churches to join with other churches in their communities to reduce the divorce rate and to increase the marriage rate.
The declaration, as well as Land’s prepared statement in support of it, are available at the ERLC’s Web site, www.erlc.com.