Summit a `boost to Christmas message'. Church council head works to broaden group's ecumenical base

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PAT McCLURG'S Christmas message is one of gratitude and hope. Gratitude that ideological opponents across the globe are starting to find common ground. And hope that this will lead to permanent world peace. The incoming president of the National Council of Churches (NCC) is not naive about easy solutions. But she sees the recent Reagan-Gorbachev summit as having strong religious significance.

The Rev. Ms. Patricia McClurg stresses that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and hope for further arms reduction are proof that ``God comes among us to help us'' when we most need it. ``For that to happen at Christmas is a tremendous boost to the Christmas message: Peace on earth, good will to all.''

World peace, social justice, feeding the hungry, and healing the heart are all high on the agenda for this soft-spoken Texas-bred Presbyterian minister who on Jan. 1 will become the first woman member of the clergy to head the 40 million-member Council of Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican church groups in the United States. In an interview at her office at the Presbytery of Elizabeth here in Plainfield, Ms. McClurg made these points:

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Although the religious ``left'' and ``right'' often clash over scriptural interpretation and church outreach programs, the Bible has at the same time ``become a fundamental meeting point for liberals and conservatives.'' Both are involved in feeding the hungry and administering to the poor through domestic and international programs.

Understanding of God is the ``fuel'' for social action. It is not possible to help the poor and unfortunate through the churches without having one's ``spiritual batteries charged,'' the NCC official says.

She adds that it is also important that ``as we are learning the lesson that the whole world is our neighbor, we also need to remember that our next-door neighbor is our neighbor too.''

US Christians must ask themselves whether what is good for this nation is also beneficial to the rest of the world.

National patriotic values have, of late, pervaded the theological approaches of some ultra-conservative religious groups. They believe that what is good for Christianity in America should work for Christians elsewhere in the world. McClurg disagrees. She stresses that the history and culture of other peoples are sometimes antipathetic to the democratic process.

Justice for all peoples, however, is a ``basic Christian theme,'' McClurg says. She refers to the Biblical Christmas story in which ``God comes among us through poor people ... [and] reaches out to all people.'' She adds that government was the main threat to the Messiah, the Christ-child.

The incoming NCC president sharply criticizes Christians who hold that the government policy of apartheid in South Africa is ``God's will.'' She calls this ``warped theology'' that must be corrected by both whites and blacks who are devoted to spiritual values.

World peace is a top priority for religious peoples. ``We have tried [to achieve peace] through the secular world,'' McClurg says. ``The church, however, has no national boundaries. We must talk about peace on a global basis.''

During the recent summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, church leaders from both the US and the Soviet Union kneeled in prayer side-by-side at the Washington Cathedral. Pray-for-peace vigils took place in Moscow, Leningrad, and many US cities.

Ordination of women in the clergy is vital to show that it is not only men who are central to religious thought. McClurg points out that although the Scriptures are male-dominated, Jesus frequently talked to women and women were present at key events, including the resurrection, asserting that ``he is risen.''

She adds that St. Paul, ``who may not have liked women, ... understood that it was a Christian duty to open up the world to everyone.''

McClurg says that as president of the the NCC, she will work to broaden its ecumenical base beyond its present 32 Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican groups. This thrust, if successful, would bring Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and smaller denominations, such as Seventh-day Adventists, into Council work.

Increased dialogue with Jews, Moslems, and Buddhists is also an aim of this church official. ``We must learn from one another,'' she explains. ``In order to understand the Christian faith, one must understand the Jewish faith.... The message of the Bible is [that] the only thing special about a special people is what they do for the whole world.''

Although McClurg takes a global view of religion, she also emphasizes the importance of individual church communities. She says a ``community of faith'' is essential to give people an opportunity to help one another and to strengthen their faith. ``I'm troubled when people don't find a place in church,'' the NCC leader says. ``Church is an important signpost in life. It helps people to understand values,'' she adds.

McClurg adds, however, that church must be relevant to all ages. She urges that the Scriptures should be ``exciting'' for young people, in particular. The stories of David and Joseph and his brothers have special meaning to youth, she says, because they can be related to contemporary experience.

In the l960s and l970s, many churches - put off by the hippie and drug scenes - ``backed away from youth,'' McClurg points out.

She says that this is turning around now with a resurgence of Bible discussion groups for younger members. ``They [youth] need our guidance ... and they need to see good examples of values.''

The issues of school prayer and government aid to church schools divide many NCC members. McClurg, however, is a firm believer in separation of church and state.

``We carry our beliefs into society, the public arena,'' she points out. ``But we don't carry our rituals into society. ``Church is to be performed in church, not in school and government.''

McClurg adds that schools should teach values - but not religion. ``We can't be a system without values, but we must protect the rights of [others],'' she explains. ``If I were a Jew, I would resent a [school] prayer in Jesus' name,'' McClurg says.

Born, raised, and educated in Texas, the Rev. Patricia McClurg has pastored congregations in Virginia as well as in Georgia and Virginia. She has served the NCC as first vice-president and on a blue ribbon panel which emphasized building ``community'' among member bodies.

As 14th president of this 37-year-old Christian umbrella, she hopes to visit Central America and South Africa to foster world peace and brotherhood.

Next May, McClurg will lead a first-of-its kind convocation of Protestants and Roman Catholics in Texas which takes the theme: ``no longer strangers.''

``We all share faith in God,'' she stresses.

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