- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2000

The National Council of Churches escaped a financial crisis this month with a $400,000 donation from United Methodists, allowing it to begin a new era of ecumenical work and advocacy for the poor.

"We will end calendar year 2000 with a balanced budget," council general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar, said yesterday. "That's remarkable."

Not long ago, the National Council of Churches (NCC) was nearly $6 million in debt, having lost donors who worried about financial mismanagement or liberal causes.

The Nov. 18 donation by the United Methodist funding agency was the last of what churches have called "emergency grants" so the NCC could meet yearend operating costs. The NCC also cut costs by reducing its staff from 64 to 47.

Mr. Edgar lauded the Methodist generosity but added, "I don't think the Methodists saved us." Other sources, including a $400,00 grant from the Presbyterian Church (USA), added to a $2 million debt-reduction plan.

"The last remaining pledge to come through was the Methodists," Mr. Edgar said from Arizona, where he spoke to the Phoenix Council of Churches.

The finance drama came two weeks ago as the NCC General Assembly met in Atlanta and its delegates from 36 member churches voted to set two primary goals: unity work with evangelicals and Roman Catholics and a 10-year "mobilization to overcome poverty."

"Our future focus is these two … and not being all things to all people," said Mr. Edgar, a former United Methodist seminary president and Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania.

The fight on poverty will involved allying with advocacy groups, testing effective methods, and persuading churches they can make a difference.

On Christian unity, Mr. Edgar said, the NCC will "covenant around a new ecumenical table" with the more conservative Catholic bishops and evangelical pastors and "stay at the table where we have disagreements."

Such disagreement arose this month when Catholic and evangelical leaders issued a "Christian Declaration of Marriage" that defined marriage as "a holy union of one man and one woman."

Mr. Edgar had signed the statement in an ecumenical spirit. But after a news conference he did not attend drew protests from homosexual rights advocates in the churches, he withdrew his name.

"It was never our intention to build a new ecumenical table around the marriage declaration," Mr. Edgar said, adding that it was "a learning experience" in how he must consult with the member churches before he acts.

Supporters of the NCC included black and Orthodox churches that are morally conservative, but also mainline Protestant groups that have liberal and conservative wings on issues such as homosexuality and same-sex "unions."

This split among mainline Protestants, who have the most financial resources, has made NCC funding problematic.

Mr. Edgar said donors have been reassured by the May separation of the popular NCC relief agency, Church World Service (CWS), from the New York office for Christian "unity, justice and education."

Before his arrival a year ago, the indebted advocacy office had dipped into the relief funds.

Now, Mr. Edgar said, CWS has a separate $70 million budget and the NCC works on $7 million a year. "We are pledged to live within the budget," he said.

His travels to local councils of churches also is part of the NCC interest in helping grass-roots work and learning Christian ecumenical concerns.

And he thinks the poverty initiative will speak to whomever wins the White House.

"Both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George Bush support charitable choice," or the role of faith groups in poverty relief, Mr. Edgar said.

In the past, NCC leaders had decried Reagan White House policies but during the Clinton White House visited to lay hands of prayer on the president.

If Mr. Bush wins, Mr. Edgar will have a fellow United Methodist to meet, though the two will represent the denominational split between Social Gospel liberals and conservative evangelical.

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