THE ORIGIN OF REDLANDS UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST by Barbara K. Hauser *1994.
It was election day at church, May 18, 1975. The question: Should Redlands First Congregational Church become part of the denominational union of Congregational-Christian and Evangelical-Reformed churches which was formed in 1957, calling itself the United Church of Christ?
This was the second time the Redlands church had taken a vote on this issue. In 1961 during the ministry here of Gerald Churchill, the same matter was considered. At that time it had been agreed that a two-thirds vote would be required for action to be taken. Although a simple majority favored the union at that time, the two-thirds vote was not achieved, and the matter was not pursued. The minister had taken a neutral stance, preferring not to influence the congregation.
Protestant ministers are required to belong to a denominational group, and since former Congregationalists were now a part of the United Church of Christ (UCC), it was not surprising that our succeeding ministers, Harry Suttner, and later Bruce Van Blair, were UCC members. A number of retired ministers in the congregation of the Redlands church had also become members of UCC on a personal basis. After the merger, any former Congregational church which did not elect to join UCC was automatically dropped from any denomination until it took action to become part of' the one of' its choice. An alternative to UCC at this time was a small Nation-wide union, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC).
Harry Suttner came to serve the Redlands church in 1962, and he adhered to the promise he had made not to make an issue of membership in UCC. He was active personally in the denomination and was elected moderator of the Southern California Conference of UCC, but lie kept these activities apart from local church business.
After Harry Suttner's death in 1972 the pastoral search committee was under some constraint to find a person to fill the pulpit who would be approved by the very vocal group insisting that a UCC minister would not be acceptable. An apparent solution appeared to be in sight when Presbyterian minister Dr. Ralph Didier, accepted the call to serve our church. However, before he had completed his move he withdrew his acceptance and the search was resumed. Eventually Bruce Van Blair, a UCC minister at an Altadena church was given the call. He came with the understanding that he would not bring up the issue of UCC membership for our church for at least three years, although the congregation was informed that he was scheduled to be Conference moderator the following year.
Van Blair and lay leaders in the local church administration did in fact try to remain outside any denomination during this time in spite of the handicap they felt. Much effort was expended in trying to avoid any issue which might seem to be a threat to conflicting feelings relating to the merger.
Then a bombshell was dropped at a council meeting when a privately organized "Committee of Concerned Congregationalists" presented the minister with a formal request to relinquish his own membership in UCC. Compliance with this request was entirely unacceptable to Van Blair. Now the issue had to be faced, whether the congregation felt ready or not.
Objections that were expressed to having our church affiliate with UCC were many and varied. Some were concerned with the effect on our church locally, and others related to how this new denomination fitted into the picture of the world at large.
Although there were repeated assurances from UCC headquarters that there would be no change in the autonomy of the local church if they decided to join, some individuals were not reassured. The Redlands church owned a valuable piece of property (assessed at around $1,000,000.) and there was mistrust that it might be taken away, that we would no longer be sole owners of our buildings and property.
There were threats that members might be forced to assume exorbitant financial obligations to finance administrative costs of the greater denomination.
There were claims that we would no longer have "freedom of choice" in calling our own ministers.
Some persons objected to a possible change in the name of the church.
Some felt that churches were out of place in becoming involved in "matters of state." There was objection to churches becoming involved in politics, civil rights and public affairs in general.
A major argument of the opposition to our becoming part of UCC was the liberal stance taken by the denomination on some social issues. Specifically there was objection to the UCC involvement in supporting the World Council of Churches and worldwide agencies in the mission field. Rumors were being circulated that because aid was provided to the needy in some Third World countries, the agencies involved might be communist sympathizers.
There was much criticism of the support given by UCC to the farm workers led by Cesar Chavez in their fight for improved working conditions.
There was criticism of the support given by UCC in the racial matter of the "Wilmington 9" (later known as the "Wilmington 10").
There was criticism of UCC disapproval of United States involvement in military action in Southeast Asia; of its attitude regarding sanctions against African nations relating to apartheid; and of its stand against the death penalty.
For some there was concern about the approving stance of UCC regarding COCU (Committee on Consultation of Church Union), a proposed merging of a number of mainline denominations.
Many felt that the ordination and installation of a declared homosexual minister in a UCC Church (in 1972) was unacceptable to Christians in general.
A major argument for the opposition was the claim (later refuted) that over 1300 churches which had joined UCC in its early years had subsequently withdrawn their membership. Also, although between 85 and 90 percent of Congregational churches across the nation had become members of UCC, a number of large Congregational churches remained outside the denomination.
In addition to these specific charges, many members of the local church were simply fearful of change. They wanted to ensure that their accustomed church-related activities would not be affected or upset. They were fearful of denominational influence of any kind and preferred to be simply outside any denomination.