GORHAM — It’s been more than 50 years since it was known as the Maine Sunday School Association. Under its current name, the Maine Council of Churches, the statewide organization has taken an interest in legislative issues, worked on criminal justice, offered interfaith activities to bring denominations together, and sponsored educational activities such as Seeds of Promise.
Delegates to the council’s annual meeting gathered recently at School Street United Methodist Church to consider past accomplishments and chart a direction for the future.
The MCC needs to increase its visibility, explained Chris Potholm of Command Research, the firm that completed a survey of 227 Mainers this past summer.
Eighty-four percent of the people would like guidance in dealing with personal crises, the survey said. Potholm called the right to die “a bellwether issue.” Residents are also interested in having churches address topics such as drug abuse, alcoholism, child abuse and child sexual abuse, marriage and family, teen-age pregnancy and sexuality, and AIDS.
Last winter, the council began a new project of study circles, small groups of seven to 15 people who agree to meet once a week for four weeks to discuss a particular topic. The pilot project found people in Waterville, Brunswick and Kennebunk looking at the controversial issue of abortion.
Beginning Jan. 23, study circles in at least 30 Maine towns will discuss educational reform.
Other scheduled activities of the council include the annual interfaith Thanksgiving service, to be held Nov. 21 in Sanford.
Approximately 350,000 Maine residents can count themselves as constituents of the Maine Council of Churches by virtue of their belonging to one of the council’s member groups — United Methodist Church of Maine, Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Episcopal Diocese of Maine, Maine Conference United Church of Christ, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA, Religious Society of Friends and Unitarian Universalist Association. The council, which has its headquarters in Portland, also has associate members.
Uniting varied people
Bringing together people of different faiths has always been a strength of the council, something that was exemplified by the annual meeting.
People from many denominations were elected to office at the meeting. Officers for the coming year are: president, Marc Mutty; Edna Smith, first vice president; William Skolfield, treasurer; and Trudy Hickey, clerk.
Elected to the board of directors were: the Rev. David Glusker, the Rev. William Irish, the Rev. William Kennison, Holly Lockhart, Marc Mutty, the Rev. Fred Pease, Elizabeth Ring, Wiliam Skolfield, Edna Smith, the Rev. Robert Stuart, Dot Grossett and Sister Ruth Hayden.
Awards presented included the Ecumenical Achievement Award to the Rev. Ronald Beinema, pastor of Falmouth Congregational Church; and the Outstanding Achievement Award to the Peggy Fuller and the Maine Broadcasting System, which broadcasts First Radio Parish Church of America’s “Devotions.”
Fuller is former director of public service at WCSH TV. Also representing the MBS were Fred Thompson, president, and Lou Colby.
Rather than a formal report on the year’s activities, MCC delegates heard a dialogue between Tom Ewell, executive director, and Marc Mutty, president.
Ewell explained that he had grown up “church-hopping,” and ended up a Quaker. In the work of the council, he said, he finds himself “looking for moments of people somehow transcending their differences,” and working for “something bigger than all of us.”
The council now also employs associate directors Sally Campbell and Evelyn Hanneman, and administrative assistant Trudy Hickey. But just eight years ago, Ewell pointed out, there was just one employee with “a desk and pretty much an empty room.”
As the council grows and branches out into more activities, “it is a challenge to maintain sensitivity,” he said, “to where the pain is, where the problems are.”
Building a consensus
One successful effort occurred last January, Ewell said, when 300 people in the criminal justice system came together to talk about that issue. Ewell said he has great hopes when “people can get in the same room and talk with one another.”
Mutty said that being involved with the council gives him “an opportunity to work with others who share common concerns. When I was a child, people of different faiths really did not mix.”
Mutty said that he saw good work being done through the council’s various committees, and projects such as study circles and the upcoming conference on clergy sexual ethics, to be held Nov. 30 in Bangor and Dec. 1 in Portland.
He said he was very pleased that the council would have the results of the recent survey to use in charting its direction. He said that important efforts include lobbying for the poor, and the cause of economic justice.
Both men cited the constant struggle for funds as a problem. Members churches and investments contribute money to the annual budget, but the organization this coming year expects to have to borrow from its investment capital.
In the future, Ewell said, he wants “to find and make opportunities for … common worship, for ways of experiencing our humanity.”
The council, Mutty said, is good at “doing together what we alone can’t do, or can’t do well.
Information may be obtained by contacting the Maine Council of Churches, 15 Pleasant Ave., Portland 04103, telephone 772-1918.