40 Years in America

New ERA Ecumenical Conferences

Rev. Moon meets with founding members of New ERA at East Garden, New York in 1979. Clockwise from Rev. Moon: Col. Bo Hi Pak, Drs. Richard Quebedeaux, Frederick Sontag, J. Stillman Judah, Herbert Richardson, unknown, and Darrol Bryant.

Representative bodies within American Protestantism, and Judaism also, opposed the movement’s ecumenical outreach. Reference has already been made to the American Jewish Committee’s charge that the movement’s main theological text was anti-Semitic. On June 21, 1977, the Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. followed suit by releasing to the press and other interested persons "A Critique of the Theology of the Unification Church as Set Forth in Divine Principle." The eleven-page "official study document," drafted by Sister Agnes Cunningham of Mundelein Seminary (Roman Catholic), was issued "to clarify the claim to Christian identity made by the Unification Church." The Commission acknowledged receiving Unification Church "statements of self-clarification" but disregarded them. It also admitted to "diversity in Christian belief and theology and, thus, internal disagreement." Nonetheless, the Commission determined that the Unification Church "is not a Christian Church" and that its "claim...to Christian identity cannot be recognized." The church’s efforts to engage both the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Churches in dialogue were fruitless. The Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States took no official stance. However, Japanese bishops issued a statement saying that the movement "has nothing to do with Catholicism, not even with Christianity, and is not an object of ecumenism."

Ironically, these actions did not have their intended effect. Rather than shutting its doors, the Seminary effectively parleyed interest stimulated by controversy about the movement into a broad-based ecumenical and inter-religious conference program. This began in February 1977 when Professor Herbert Richardson of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto "brought together 8-10 of his old students -- now professors teaching in various parts of North America -- to dialogue with UTS students about Unification theology and what this ‘Moonie’ stuff was all about." This led to a follow-up conference in April and several more weekend "theologian conferences," organized by UTS students before the end of the year. In 1978, the Seminary hosted two "Evangelical-Unification" dialogues convened by evangelical author Richard Quebedeaux, which brought its students into conversation with "born-again" Christians.

These conferences and others fed into a weeklong Virgin Islands Seminar on Unification Theology for fifty theologians, scholars of religion, philosophers, ministers, social scientists and others from July 22-29, 1979. Ferment from that conference carried over into the first "Advanced Seminar on Unification Theology" held the following February in the Bahamas. By this time, the conference program had caught the interest of Rev. Moon, who committed significantly more resources to its development. This led to the founding of the New Ecumenical Research Association (New ERA) and the creation of a twenty-one member board of consultants who met twice yearly "to plan conferences, publications and other events to bring people together ecumenically worldwide." Under the New ERA board of consultants the conference schedule was regularized so that there were annual summer introductory conferences, advanced winter seminars, New ERA regional conferences, special theme conferences, and UTS conferences. Hundreds of scholars participated at the movement’s expense in the summer introductory seminars which were held in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Madiera, the Canary Islands and Athens, Greece between 1980-84. The advanced winter seminars consisted of three or four concurrent sessions on specific topics and were held at various sites in the Caribbean. Regional, special theme and UTS conferences covered a wide range of topics. The most substantial of these was an ongoing series of sociology conferences which included many of that field’s most prominent academics.

No less than was the case with ICUS, the movement’s distinctive form of "academic ecumenism" generated a good deal of synergy. In 1981, in response to a proposal by a New ERA board member, the movement convened the first of four annual conferences on "God: The Contemporary Discussion." These large international gatherings were conceptualized as a kind of "internal ICUS" with various conference sections and participants expected to produce papers. The Youth Seminar on World Religions (YSWR) emerged out of the first "God Conference" at which some participants asked whether the event could "extend beyond the scholarly level" and allow students to have a similar "broadening experience with the world’s religions." Rev. Moon endorsed the idea, and between 1982-84, some 150 students and professors gathered annually during the summer for a 1-week orientation and 7-week around-the-world pilgrimage to sites associated with the religious traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Unificationism. These events further expanded the movement’s ecumenical and inter-religious network and involved religious scholars of the highest rank, including Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions and one of the country’s foremost authorities on world faiths, who with his wife co-chaired the first two Youth Seminars and served as chairperson of the fourth God Conference.

The New ERA model had additional benefits for the movement. During the early 1980s, some thirty-six UTS graduates pursued doctorates in religion at major U.S. seminaries and universities. These students served as lecturers, panelists and conference coordinators for many of these meetings and thereby gained invaluable experience. In addition, the church applied the New ERA model to its ministerial outreach, establishing Interdenominational Conferences for Clergy (ICC) in 1982. These focused on three broad themes: Christian Perspectives on the Family, The Church and Social Action, and Unification Theology: With Implications for Ecumenism and Social Action. More than 800 ministers attended ICC gatherings by 1984. The International Religious Foundation (IRF) was incorporated in 1983 "to bring under one umbrella the various interfaith and ecumenical activities sponsored by the Unification Church." In addition to its vigorous conference and publishing program which eventually included several imprint series with Paragon House Publishers, IRF provided seed money and development grants to the National Council for the Church and Social Action (NCCSA), a coalition of community- based and community-governed organizations which "grew out of ideas proposed by black clergy of different denominations in dialogue with members of the Unification [Church] Interfaith Affairs department." By 1983, there were forty-nine chapters in thirty-four states.

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