Book Review: The United Church of Christ in the Shenandoah Valley
Posted May 10, 2011on:
The United Church of Christ in the Shenandoah Valley: Liberal Church, Traditional Congregations by H. B. Cavalcanti, Lexington Books: 2010, 155 pp.
It was a personal interest and an author’s generosity that led me to this book. I stumbled upon an article about it through my “Google Alerts” for the United Church of Christ. The article was in a local paper from the rural Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where I went to college, interviewing an author from my alma mater (a public university) who had written a book about my denomination. It was in the Shenandoah Valley that I first discovered the UCC, and I attended several churches there, including one in particular that inspired me to seek membership and ordination in this denomination that I now deeply love. Compelled by the intersecting factors of my alma mater, my first UCC church and the Shenandoah Valley, I wrote to the author to express my excitement to read the book as soon as I could get it through a local seminary library. He generously sent me my very own copy.
The book tackles a question that haunts the United Church of Christ, particularly in areas of the country where historic churches (and their cultural traditions) predate the UCC and its progressive leanings. (This review presumes a basic knowledge of UCC history. If you are unfamiliar with it, you can find it here.)
How fully have United Church of Christ congregations embraced these commitments? How have their local traditions in worship, outreach or service been impacted by them? Could local congregations whose origins precede the UCC’s be more attached to older identities? … To what extent are United Church of Christ congregations the local expression of a united and uniting, multiracial and multicultural, accessible to all, open and affirming and just peace church? (2)
This book tries to answer that question by a concrete look at the churches of one association, and a close examination of its churches and their local practices and concerns.
In my correspondence with Dr. Cavalcanti, I learned that he began this book as an outsider to the UCC. His background is in the Brazilian Baptist church (a mission of the Southern Baptist church), where he was ordained many years ago, before his academic career. His partner was raised in the UCC, but the author was not active in any church during the time he was researching and writing this book, except for attending all the Shenandoah Valley UCC churches for research. While his research opened the door for him to return to church through the UCC, what makes this book so interesting and compelling is his outsider’s perspective, the simple sociological viewpoint based on statistical measures, detailed interviews and rigorous observations. Many UCC clergy, theologians and seminary professors have pondered this same question, but I have never read a sociologist (in the context of a public university) examine it.
This outsider status functions in two ways in the book. First, Cavalcanti writes notes and descriptions of the UCC and its culture that seem obvious to insiders like me. The observations he draws from worship experiences, church newsletters and descriptions of annual events like church picnics and Homecoming Sundays seem almost uninteresting to those of us who live those realities all the time. One whole chapter is “A Year in the Life of a Church,” and it could have been written about my church or any of hundreds of others in the UCC or many other mainline Protestant churches, especially smaller, historic ones. There were Easter egg hunts and Christmas pageants, hospitalizations and funerals, yard sales and Vacation Bible School, choir practices and annual business meetings.
I did not need to read this book to know what goes on in the church throughout a year. There was no new insight or information there. And yet, that was one of the best parts of the book. There is something quite affirming and uniting about seeing those descriptions in print. It affirmed the basic, ordinary, unheralded work that the church does year in and year out to tend to the members of its community. By a close examination of one church, it described the reality of so many churches, and made me feel a sense of connection to all those other congregations out there in the UCC, to their pastors and leaders who are doing the same work we are doing, facing the same struggles and delighting in the same rewards. This book captures, for history, a window into my life and the life of so many other churchgoers and church leaders. It unites us as a denomination based on our shared experiences of ordinary church life.
Second, the outsider’s perspective Cavalcanti offers creates a much more realistic, measured assessment of the original thesis question about the gap (real or perceived) between the local church and the national bodies. I currently serve in the Kentuckiana Association of the UCC, and my association is similar to the Shenandoah Association in many ways–historic churches with diverse histories, smaller and more rural settings, and a theological and political culture in our members that is much more conservative than our national representatives. I suspect it mirrors many local associations throughout the UCC. While my theology and politics align closely with our historic UCC commitments outlined above, I find myself standing in between the local church and the national church to act as interpreter. When insiders talk about the separation, we are caught up in the act of defending one side to the other, trying desperately to bridge the gap or push it closed. Cavalcanti’s outside perspective approaches the question without all our anxieties and defensiveness.
In the end, he concludes that many of the local churches of the Shenandoah Valley Association, especially those formed before the merger, do not reflect the priorities of the national UCC. He offers the most astute description of the disconnect that I have heard:
An important trait of United Church of Christ identity in the valley is the sense of outside-ness that still pervades the older congregations. … They do not see themselves as stakeholders in the making of that history. It is not necessarily that they do not feel like they belong to the United Church of Christ, but rather that the national church is not a natural, organic extension of their local religious life. … In that sense, the national structure exists as an autonomous actor with its own separate agenda. (127)
On the other hand, those churches formed after the 1957 merger usually identify quite strongly with the priorities of the national church.
For Shenandoah Association congregations that were founded as United Church of Christ, the relationship with the UCC is wholly unproblematic. For the most part, they are the local expression of the national church. Their histories reflect its journey. (130)
I think that summarizes my experience of the relationship between the local and national churches in every association of which I’ve been a part.
In the end, it is clear in reading this book—and in experiencing the lived reality of local UCC churches and associations—that the five historic commitments might not be what unites us, but we are united. Cavalcanti offers some concluding thoughts on the five characteristics that unite all the churches he studied in the Shenandoah Association, regardless of their political or theological orientation. I believe those same characteristics apply throughout the UCC.
- The UCC is evangelical: no matter how we understand him, Christ is always the center of our work.
- The UCC is confessional: worship is an act of reverence, to be treated with a sense of formality and sacredness, regardless of style, size or theology.
- The UCC is fiercely independent: each church stands proudly on its own two feet, claiming its own heritage and freedom, its own strengths and weaknesses.
- The UCC is eminently practical: each church has much wisdom about how to be a church, how to do the work of worship, care, education, fellowship and finances at the local level. (This is the shared sense I got in the description of “A Year in the Life of a Church”)
- The UCC is caring: every church cares for its members and its community, striving to attend to the real matters of ordinary life—sharing meals, celebrating milestones, assisting with emergencies, helping with education and housing, marrying and burying. (132-134)
Across our theological and political divisions, from traditional historic churches to new and experimental ones, at the local level and the national setting, we are bound together by these shared practices and commitments. There is something that unites us, and Cavalcanti’s research helps explore and explain it. This book would be an excellent resource for any local pastor or leader interested in the dynamics of the UCC in a given association, or another “outsider” trying to grasp an image of this wild and diverse thing that is the UCC. Even more, Cavalcanti’s work should inform the work of all our judicatory staff at the Association, Conference and National settings of the church. There is much more to explore as we consider what unites us. It is a joy to read, and an insightful look at our local churches that both acknowledges their struggles and uplifts their ministries.