Starting us out, I have two points to make. Really, the first point is just for any Catholics out there in Liturgy-Geek land, or former Catholics who've left the RCC but haven't made their way to a new church home. Or, if your only experience of "church" comes from what you see on television, you might want to read that first one. If you're a Protestant or have experience among the Proddies, you can skip right ahead to #2:
1. When I was getting ready to start seminary, I used to get so sick of answering the question of if ministers can have sex (living in NYC, it seems I knew a lot of Catholics). The answer is YES. (This alone should be a reason for you to consider making the switch.) The larger point is: Have you heard of a little thing called the "Reformation"? It's kind of a bump in the road of your church's history, but it rather important for us Protestants.
Yeah, it has to do with your church, and people breaking away from Rome. I'd love to say some folk broke away out of solidarity with the poor, or in protest of the church hiearchy's protection (sometimes for decades) of priests who sexually abused children, or important things like that. But no, the Reformation came about because of the church selling indulgences to the rich, and annulling a king's marriage so he could marry a new hottie, and other stuff like that. Some people - mostly men, sometimes priests - got mad and threw little fits or nailed stuff to church doors trying to get the church hierarchy to pay attention. They were trying to REFORM the church from within (hence the name "Reformation," get it?). When that didn't work, then they left. Sometimes reluctantly. Sometimes they got kicked out ("excommunicated"). Some of the names you need to know regarding the Protestant Reformation are: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli. Do you need to know more about them? Probably. But I'm not the one to ask. Wiki them if you want.
As a result of the Reformation, yes, priests (or "ministers" as we're more commonly called in Protestant churches) can now have sex. We can marry. In some traditions, we can even marry someone of the same gender. And, yep, women can be priests. Try not to let all that blow your mind.
2. Now that that's out of the way....let's move on to the UCC. If there's really one thing to know about the UCC, it's that any question you ask about us can be answered in two words: "It depends." (This should really be our motto: The United Church of Christ - it depends! Hey, that has a nice double meaning....) EVERY UCC congregation is different and does things differently. Sometimes those differences are small, but often they are very significant for that congregation. So even the stuff that I write is going to be true of my experience in the UCC, but you can bet that others will have different experiences. That doesn't make me a liar or their church bad, it just makes us the UCC. There is no "UCC consensus" about anything....other than Jesus Christ being the sole head of the church. (And I'm pretty sure there's no consensus among all UCC members about what "Jesus Christ being the sole head of the church" means. You can see now what I mean about, "It depends.")
This is because, according to our polity (the rules governing our life together as a denomination), "the basic unit of the church is the local congregation." Each church has autonomy and gets to make its own rules. We don't have bishops. We don't have a pope. We do have a General Minister and President, but he doesn't technically have any more authority to speak for the UCC than does my parishioner K, who drives me nuts most weeks (though I do love L very much).
We do have this every-two-years gathering called General Synod, where we come out with various statements and pronouncements (you may remember this one about marriage equality, it was big in the news in 2005) that is supposed to guide the national setting in its work between Synods, but this is where it gets tricky. General Synods speak TO the church - to its members and congregations and associations and conferences. It does not speak FOR the church - to the world, to the media, etc. No one gets that. (Even within the UCC, people don't get that.)
This basically means that at General Synod, the gathered assembly could vote to encourage every congregation to become a tithing congregation within the next five years, and that would mean that our stewardship and evangelism teams would be working hard at producing materials aimed toward this, our General Minister and President would start talking about tithing a lot more, etc. etc. etc., and ninety percent of our churches could still ignore the pronouncement. And nothing would happen to them. No votes removed, no penalties, no ministers pulled from pulpits.
But now that I think about it, wouldn't that be a cool pronouncement?
Getting back to the UCC and autonomy...you may legitimately ask, "Why bother with denominational ties at all, if you don't have to agree with anything other settings of the church do?" That will bring us to the next topic, "Covenant." I'll post in a couple of days, God willing.